If you’re wondering whether the pandemic and online church will have a lasting effect on how churches operate, new research from Barna indicates the answer is a definitive yes.
While most churchgoing Americans long to be back in their physical church buildings for worship and other programs as before, they also have found the benefits of online worship, and they see a hybrid future coming.
The answer all pastors and church leaders want to know is what worshipers will want after the pandemic threat has passed. Will they return to in-person worship or stay home and watch in their pajamas now that they know how easy that is?
Perhaps not surprisingly, the answer depends on your age. While 52% of “churched” adults overall say they will prefer primarily physical gatherings in the future, 35% say they want to have access to both. Churched Baby Boomers are the most likely to say they will prefer primarily in-person gatherings (71%), while Gen-Xers, Millennials and Gen-Zers are much more likely to forecast a hybrid approach.
The value and challenge of online worship
A majority of “churched” adults (71%) and even a majority of church dropouts during the pandemic (67%) see the value of online church services. But 81% of churched adults and 71% of church dropouts say it will be important to worship in the future alongside others in a physical gathering. Barna defines “churched” adults as those who have attended church at least once in the past six months.
A majority of churched adults (56%) and three-fourths of pandemic church dropouts say they are “waiting for churches services to go back to normal” before they return.
Despite many churches already reopening for in-person worship, Barna found a majority of churched adults (56%) and three-fourths of pandemic church dropouts saying they are “waiting for church services to go back to normal” before they return.
While online church has been popular during the pandemic, 36% of adults who have participated online said they are prone to wander mentally and have trouble focusing. This is especially true for those with children in the home.
Barna found that a previously noted phenomenon it calls “church shifting” has been accelerated by the pandemic. “Church shifting” is the use of digital technology to access church services on your own timetable and not just when they are offered in real time.
However, among those who had dropped out of church before the pandemic, none of this has made a difference, Barna found. They have not been any more likely to return to church.
Church attendance trends
Prior the pandemic, only 14% of U.S. adults said they “never” attended church and another 39% said it had been more than a year since they attended church for something other than a holiday service, wedding or funeral. That number jumped to 53% of U.S. adults who said they “never” have attended a church service in-person or online during the pandemic. Another 10% said they had attended only once or twice during the pandemic.
When framed by looking only at “practicing Christians,” before the pandemic 79% said they had attended church within the previous week of being polled in December 2019, and 21% said they had attended church within the previous month. Barna defines “practicing Christians” as self-identified Christians who say their faith is very important in their lives and have attended a worship service within the past month.
19% of practicing Christians say they have not attended a single in-person or online service during the pandemic.
Even this previously loyal group has taken a dive in attendance during the pandemic, with 19% of practicing Christians saying they have not attended a single in-person or online service during the pandemic. What previously was a loyal group of weekly attenders dropped from 79% to 51% attendance.
Among previously churchgoing adults who have dropped out during the pandemic, researchers found a correlation with the presence of children in the home. Adults with children under age 18 in the home are twice as likely as other adults not to have dropped out during the pandemic. Church dropouts also are more likely to fall in lower socio-economic groups and to live in the Northeast.
American churchgoers also seem confused about what it means to “attend” church in these pandemic days. For example, almost half of churched adults who said they had not attended church either digitally or in-person during the pandemic also reported they had “watched a church service online.”
This means it is possible to watch an online service and not count yourself as an attendee, the Barna report notes, which ought to cause church leaders to reconsider how they define participation.
Church life beyond worship
Corporate worship has become the primary expression of church during the pandemic.
Other aspects of church life beyond public worship have taken a huge hit during the pandemic. When Barna asked churched adults which of a list of 13 church activities they had participated in during the pandemic, the only item that got close to a majority response was “none of these.”
Only 17% had participated in an in-person small group or discipleship class — which wouldn’t be surprising given the physically close nature of small groups — but only 11% said they had participated in a digital version of a small group focused on discipleship.
Only 30% of churched adults told Barna they were aware of their congregations offering anything beyond online or streamed worship services.
Several aspects of church life and ministry do not translate well to an online format.
Several aspects of church life and ministry do not translate well to an online format, according to the survey. Respondents indicated low interest in digital versions of spiritual formation classes, children’s ministry, senior adult ministry, youth ministry and marriage ministry.
Another area that perhaps predictably has taken a downturn is participation in volunteer service. Only 11% of churched adults said they had participated in in-person service projects through the church during the pandemic, while 10% said they had volunteered online and 9% said they had volunteered in their communities through church efforts.
Suggestions for church leaders
Based on its research, Barna suggests several ways churches should prepare for congregational life post-pandemic. The first is to appoint an online pastor, someone who is responsible for cultivating personal relationships with those who primarily access the church digitally.
A second suggestion is to employ new media beyond Sunday morning. This could include podcasts and Bible studies, for example.
A third suggestion is a permanent redesign of services that are shared online. While worshipers might be unlikely to walk out of an in-person service, they can easily check out and walk away from an online sermon. Barna suggests pastors reconsider the length and content of their sermons as well as other service elements that may not translate to the digital world.