By James Deaton
Many congregations have added an online option to weekly worship as part of their response to the pandemic. Last year’s survey by the Church of the Brethren Yearbook staff showed that 84 percent of Church of the Brethren congregations responding said they had worshiped online during the pandemic. When asked if they planned to continue this in the future, 72 percent said yes. That means online worship numbers are now a meaningful part of total worship participation.
Over the past year, the Yearbook Office has learned some best practices for measuring online engagement. The Church of the Brethren is a member of the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies (ASARB, www.asarb.org), where data gatherers from many religious groups share ideas and learn from one another. Last year’s meeting focused heavily on the issue of online worship data. Some Christian denominations have years of experience on this topic, and we benefit from their knowledge.
One metric that ASARB members agree on is the need to keep in-person (onsite) attendance separate from online attendance. Technologies change rapidly, and measuring online participation is a puzzle. What platforms will we use 30 years from now? No one knows. Statisticians must be able to compare numbers consistently from year to year, trusting they are comparing apples with apples. Denominations that have had multiple platforms for years have always kept these numbers separate, and we must do the same.
What should congregations do for 2021?
Yearbook forms for reporting 2021 worship attendance have been mailed to congregations, due April 15. On the Statistical Form, congregations should report only in-person worship attendance (even if they had no in-person services at all). Everyone recognizes that statistics for this period of time during the COVID-19 pandemic will carry a big asterisk.
Since many congregations worshiped partly or fully online during 2021, counting online worshipers is the only way to provide a sense of overall worship attendance. Even though counting participants on any online platform can be complex and unreliable, congregations may have created their own system for counting, or they may have not kept track at all. Either way, if congregations would like to provide a number, even if it’s an estimate, there is an optional addendum in the packet of forms that can be completed and returned. Filling this out is optional.
How do congregations count online worship attendance for 2022?
Some denominations use a complex formula for calculating online attendance, but that doesn’t seem quite right for the Church of the Brethren. Here are some best practices that we’ve learned from other denominations:
— Check viewership statistics for the seven-day period following the service. The goal is to gauge the congregation’s weekly rhythm of participation. Don’t wait until the end of the month or the end the year to obtain totals for each week’s video.
— Count only those present for most of worship. Each platform tracks this differently, but the goal is to track those viewing all or at least half of the service.
— To estimate the number of viewers, count viewing devices and then convert it to the number of individuals based on what is known about the congregation’s households. Or multiply by 2.5, the national average household size (or the state’s average).
It is important for congregations to do their best, even if it’s an estimate. Just be faithful to the overall intent and be consistent in calculations.
For more FAQs on counting online worship attendance, visit www.brethren.org/yearbook.
Yearbook Office staff understand this can be complex and are grateful for the patience and help as we all navigate these changes together. Thanks be to God that church communities have been able to gather for worship, even in challenging times.
If congregations have further questions, please contact Jim Miner, Yearbook specialist, 800-323-8039 ext. 320 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
— James Deaton is managing editor for Brethren Press and serves on the Yearbook staff.
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