Small Church Leadership Trends – What We Can Learn From 2021

Most churches were forced to take a hard look at who they are and what they are called to do this year. This brought greater clarity and focus than many had experienced in decades.

Ah, 2021! You gave it your best shot to compete with 2020 as Worst Year Ever, didn’t you?

Despite that, there’s a lot we can learn from you. In fact, I’m determined to do so.

Here are some trends and lessons I noticed in the past year from the churches and pastors I work with. Some are positive, some are negative. Let’s look at the bad news first.

(Watch for my follow-up article, 9 Ways To Be A More Proactive Pastor In 2022, coming here soon.)

Negative Trends

Among the negative trends, we saw the following:

Continued Decline In In-Person Attendance

By the time the dust eventually settles on this era, 2020-2021 will probably have the biggest drop-off of in-person church attendance ever – at least for the U.S. and probably for many other countries as well.

Drop-Off In Virtual Attendance

In 2020, almost every church went online – including many churches that had previously believed that online church “isn’t real church.” For a while, the move to online actually looked very positive. Many congregations reported much higher numbers of online attenders than they had ever seen in their pews – often doubling or tripling their in-person numbers.

But the excitement for online worship didn’t last.

2021 showed us that the spike in online church numbers were just that – a temporary spike. In most churches, not only did the online numbers go static after in-person church resumed, they dropped off substantially.

Too Much Looking Backwards

Bad news alert! I hate to be the one to break this to you, but someone has to do it.

Nothing is ever going to be like it used to be.

Longing for the “good old days” of 2019-ish (our window for nostalgia has gotten small, hasn’t it?) is wasted emotion. And wanting to go back to the way things were before the pandemic is a hugely-wasted opportunity.

There’s a reason our cars’ rear-view mirror is eight inches wide, while the windshield is six feet wide – because that’s about the difference of time we should spend glancing back, compare to looking ahead.

Many pastors are spending too much time and energy trying to get back to the way things used to be. Even in normal times, this is a bad strategy with zero possibility of success. Today, it’s likely to be fatal. Click To Tweet

Despite this, many pastors are spending too much time and energy trying to get back to the way things used to be. Even in normal times, this is a bad strategy with zero possibility of success. Today, it’s likely to be fatal.

The church has never survived, let alone thrived, by looking backwards. Not now, not ever.

Too Much Looking Inwards

…and yet another piece of bad news.

You know those people who stopped attending church in mid-2020 who you haven’t seen since? They’re not coming back.

This is a point I’ve struggled to write because I want to say it clearly, but with love and hope.

Except for those who are significantly immuno-compromised or who have other physical/medical restrictions, if church members haven’t chosen to come back yet, they’ve made a permanent decision to stay away. They may not even know it yet themselves, but that’s the reality.

If church members haven’t chosen to come back yet, they’ve made a permanent decision to stay away. They may not even know it yet themselves, but that’s the reality. Click To Tweet

We should never give up on anyone – Jesus certainly hasn’t. But, while we should keep praying and being available for them, it’s not wise to spend too much of our finite time and energy trying to rebuild what we used to have. We’re more likely to get a positive response by reaching people who’ve never been to church (focusing outward) than trying to reignite people who stopped attending (focusing inward).

Newton’s first law of motion tells us that an object in motion will stay in motion, and an object at rest will stay at rest, until they are acted upon by an outside force.

For a lot of people, church attendance was a habitual motion that was stopped by the outside force of the pandemic lockdowns. Now they are objects at rest, and they’re not going to get back into church-going motion until they’re acted on by an even stronger force.

What does this have to with looking inwards? Similar to looking backwards, it puts the focus in the wrong place.

When we look inwards (to our current and previous members who may never come back) instead of outward (to people who’ve never attended the church, but who are looking for answers to the trauma we’re all facing) we put ourselves on a path to greater irrelevance and a lack of Great Commission awareness.

Living And Dealing With Collective Trauma

This pandemic is unique. For the first time since World War 2, the entire planet is going through a trauma together. This is a significant moment that will affect how we live, think, work, worship and relate to each other for generations to come.

Thankfully, God designed us to deal with traumatic events in healthy, life-giving ways. For some help on dealing with it, check out the following links to some of the work I’ve done to help deal with trauma:

Can This Work In A Small Church? Podcast Episodes

Other Resources

Positive Trends

That’s the bad news. Thankfully, there was some very good news, too. (Yes, even in 2021.)

Finances Stayed Stronger Than Expected

This was a surprise. Even as fewer people were in attendance, most of the churches I’ve talked to have told me that their giving is remaining steady, and even rising.

But don’t get too comfortable with this. I advise putting this money aside in a contingency fund. Giving is likely to drop as short-term non-attenders start becoming permanent non-attenders.

More Online Options

From live-streaming our services, to text-to-give, to YouTube Bible studies and more, if 2020 was the watershed moment when we put more church events online, 2021 was the year that many churches got a lot better at creative online ministry.

Volunteerism Bumped Up

This is a mixed bag. While some churches had a drop in volunteers, a surprisingly high number of pastors have told me that their volunteers stepped it up more than usual in 2021.

Greater Missional Clarity

Most churches were forced to take a hard look at who they really are and what they are really called to do this year. This brought greater clarity and focus than many churches had experienced in decades.

In 2022, we need to put the mission into action more than ever before.

Your Thoughts?

That’s what I’ve got. But I know there’s a lot more.

Did you notice any trends among small churches in 2021? Let us know in the comments.


(Watch for my follow-up article, 9 Ways To Be A More Proactive Pastor In 2022, coming here soon.)


(Photo by Clever Visuals | Unsplash)

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