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June 16, 2020Send Institute

Survey: Churches Experiment with In-Person Gatherings but Many are Split

Churches are divided, but pulling together for the sake a mission is essential in this pandemic.
Survey: Churches Experiment with In-Person Gatherings but Many are Split
Image: Photo by muratart on Shutterstock

After three months of shelter-in-place and stay-at-home orders, states and local governments have begun loosening their guidelines, allowing some businesses to return to in-person operations. And just as churches have begun settling into virtual services and more decentralized ways of doing ministry, church leaders are now faced with the decision to return to in-person corporate gatherings or to continue as they have been.

Much of the tension experienced by church leaders in this time comes from the desire to exercise the right of religious assembly while understanding the risk of coronavirus spread. In some states, churches have taken legal action against what they perceive as an infringement of First Amendment rights. Still, others would insist that the most compassionate and civically responsible action to take would be to continue hosting virtual services until the levels of risk are greatly mitigated.

In the last few weeks, some churches have begun hosting in-person worship gatherings again, meeting at a much lower capacity than before the pandemic. The focus of this survey was to discover the state of churches returning to in-person gatherings as of late spring and into the summer months. Because there is a projected increase of coronavirus spread in the fall, monitoring the confidence of churches assembling during the summer can perhaps help leaders better prepare for the fall if a spike should indeed occur. This confidence can be gauged by understanding how quickly churches intend to return and at what capacity they are returning based on their state guidelines and restrictions.

The efforts of this survey and report are done in partnership with the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center’s Send Institute, Exponential, and the Association of Related Churches (ARC). The survey was administered June 1-12, 2020 through an online form distributed by Exponential to church leaders from their constituency and received 767 responses from 46 states.

The overall findings are that while some churches have indeed begun returning to in-person corporate worship gatherings, most have still not returned and many from among those are still uncertain about their timeline. Those who are returning are having to make accommodations for many of their church members who are not yet ready to return. Those who have not returned are having to provide meaningful virtual engagement, especially for church members who are eager to return. This reveals a tension that church leaders have begun navigating, as many are now having to lead congregations through the summer with a split difference of opinion on whether to return or not.

There are four specific findings from this report church leaders may find insightful as they continue to make decisions for the summer and fall. Each section includes an analysis from the survey and helpful suggestions to keep church members engaged amid this phase of the pandemic.

Firstly, most churches have the potential to gather at some capacity but a large majority (67%) still have not yet gathered.

The capacity at which a church is allowed to gather is one of the indicators for when a church expects to return to in-person gatherings. How churches return largely depends on how they abide by the specific state and local restrictions and guidelines.

Church leaders were asked, “Given your state’s mandates, how much of your church can potentially gather at a time for in-person corporate worship gatherings?” Only 6% responded they were in a state or a region that could not gather in-person at all. Twenty-five percent of church leaders indicated they were able to gather up to half of their usual attendance, while only 14% indicated they could gather their entire congregation.

Some states or regions have placed a hard cap on the number of people that can gather. Twenty percent of church leaders say that they can only gather up to 50 people. However, there is still a big disparity between the ability to gather and actually gathering.

Regardless of restrictions and guidelines, 67% say their churches have not yet begun gathering. Some church leaders explain that while they are allowed to gather in some capacity, the health and safety of their congregation and community outweigh their ability and desire to gather. Others have shared that restrictions on congregational singing, hesitation from ministry volunteers, and the inability to linger before and after services for conversations, greatly reduce the value of their in-person gatherings.

The churches least likely to gather right now are churches with 1000+ in pre-pandemic attendance. Eighty percent of church leaders from large churches indicate that they are not yet gathering. Compare this to other church sizes: 501 to 1000 (66%), 101 to 500 (61%), 51 to 100 (65%), and less than 50 (65%).

From among the 33% that have returned to in-person gatherings, most are seeing less than half of their congregation attend. And the overwhelming majority indicate that their meetings are abbreviated or have taken some other format than their pre-pandemic services. Only 18% indicate their gatherings have returned to their usual meeting format.

Taking Advantage of Your Gathering Capacity for Equipping

Most churches can safely gather in groups of at least 10. This means that small groups can begin meeting not only for home fellowship but also for equipping and leadership development. Consider taking time this summer to create small gatherings to meaningfully invest in your leaders and ministry volunteers. Churches can rotate small group meetings in their facilities. Leaders can regularly gather to strategize mission and ministry opportunities. While you can do this virtually, taking advantage of the in-person can prepare some for when the church begins meeting together again in a larger group.

Secondly, half of churches will return to in-person worship gatherings by June but almost a third are still not sure yet about their return (28%).

While a majority of churches are not yet meeting, many are planning their return at the beginning of this summer. Eighteen percent of church leaders say their churches have been meeting since at least May, and 33% indicate their churches will be meeting in June sometime. This would mean that by the end of this month, half of churches will have some sort of in-person worship service. Another 20% of churches will plan to meet before the fall.

However, this leaves 28% of respondents who are still unsure if and when they will begin meeting again. A few of the reasons have already been listed above, and along with the projected increase in coronavirus cases in the fall, some churches are preemptively waiting longer to tell.

In a phone conversation with a pastor of a large church in a region with over 7300 confirmed cases and 159 COVID-19 related deaths, he admitted that while the numbers are still relatively low in his region, the church leaders are still uncertain whether or not they will return to in-person gatherings before 2021. As a large church in a region with significant restrictions, it does not make sense to church leadership to hold worship services for only a small percentage of their congregation while risking the chance of increasing the number of coronavirus cases in their community. Their plan is to continue month by month and to continue to improve their virtual engagement, with possibly some small group meetings.

Urban churches are least likely to return before the summer. Only 40% of respondents in urban contexts indicate that they will be returning to in-person gatherings by June. Compare this to church leaders from suburban (50%) and rural contexts (72%). Thirty-two percent of urban church leaders are not sure when they will return while only 16% of rural church leaders feel the same.

While the fall dynamics are still too far away to tell, churches are displaying both courage and caution in returning to in-person gatherings this summer.

Use Your Return to as a “Relaunch” to Reach New People

For the last few months, you have probably been getting your church settled into pandemic life with not much opportunity to think about trying new things. Whether you just began meeting or are still planning your return, you have an opportunity to try something new that could reach new people. Many churches have seen returning to worship gatherings as a “re-launch” of their church. Every church is a church plant! This could be a chance to try out a new worship service format or it could mean that you are taking your small groups and turning them into missional communities.

Thirdly, a significant number of church leaders feel their members are split on whether to return to in-person gatherings right now.

Church leaders ranked church membership care as their top priority followed by weekend services and evangelism. When asked about the level of influence church members had on returning to in-person corporate worship, the largest responses were “Some influence to return sooner” (38%), “Some influence to wait longer” (22%), and “No influence” (20%).

In addition to figuring out technology and implementing social-distancing, the pandemic has posed another challenge for church leaders from within their congregations.

As we progress further into the stages of the pandemic and businesses are opening up more, this has created a sense of frustration in church members. Some are feeling frustrated because their churches are not yet gathering while businesses, especially large corporate ones, are almost fully operational. Others are feeling frustrated because their church is gathering, or planning to do so, while the number of coronavirus cases continues to climb.

When asked about their current situation, 28% of church leaders indicated that “the church is close to evenly split on whether to return to in-person meetings now”, the largest response from all categories.

A significant percentage of church leaders say either “A majority of the church support returning to in-person meetings now” (22%) or “A majority of the church support continuing our current online meetings” (17%). Looking at churches as a whole across the nation, these figures do not show a uniform sense of how churches feel about returning. A large number of churches feel split about returning, and it would seem that across the nation, churches are split about returning.

In the oncoming months, church leaders will have to make the right decisions on behalf of their churches and communities. For some churches, this may mean that they will meet sooner than they expected. For other churches, it means waiting just a little longer. In some spare cases, it may even mean having to stop in-person worship gatherings, again, after restarting them for only just a few weeks.

Repurpose Tension for Greater Commitment to Mission

While it is important to pay attention to what church members believe is best for the congregation and community, tension is often the occasion to cast vision for what is the true purpose and mission of the local church. A return to a gathering should be done with a commitment to keep scattering for the mission. And a commitment to remain scattered should be done for Kingdom’s sake, and not out of fear or apathy. Addressing people’s underlying fear by reminding them of God’s purpose for your church in the community can help transcend the conversation beyond just whether to return on Sundays.

Finally, state leadership is the greatest factor for why churches are waiting longer to reopen while federal and denominational leadership have the least influence overall.

While this may not come as a huge surprise, it is important to remember that how churches are planning to return to in-person gatherings reflects both their civil freedom as well as their witness as Christians, especially amid what can become a very divisive issue.

Church leaders were asked about how the following categories influenced their return to in-person corporate worship:

  • Denomination/Network leadership
  • Local/municipal leadership
  • State/provincial leadership
  • Federal leadership
  • President Trump calling churches “essential places of faith to open right now”
  • Other churches
  • Our church members
  • Our church’s leaders (staff, elders, deacons, etc.)

They were asked to rank each category’s level of influence based on this scale:

  • No influence
  • Some influence to wait longer
  • Some influence to return sooner
  • Significant influence to return sooner

The categories that had the largest percentage indicating “Some” to “Significant influence to wait longer” was State/provincial leadership at 67% and both Local/municipal leadership and Our church’s leaders at 52%.

The categories that had the largest percentage indicating “Some” to “Significant influence to return sooner” was Our church members at 47% and Our church’s leaders at 39%.

The largest category with “No influence” on church leaders was President Trump calling churches “essential places of faith to open right now” at 61%. However, 34% indicated that the president’s statement had “Some” to “Significant influence to return sooner”.

Fifty-nine percent indicated Denomination/Network leadership and 47% indicated Federal Leadership had “No influence” as well.

Only 10% of respondents felt that Our church’s leaders had “No influence” over returning.

Be Involved Citizens and a Public Witness

Part of being a responsible citizen is to ensure that the rights of churches and other religious groups to assemble are not being infringed upon. In addition, it is a part of our public witness as Christians to be at peace with our local leaders and to honor them as they make decisions to keep our communities safe. This is a crucial time for church leaders to get to know their municipality and state leaders. As a church leader, it is worth the time getting to know your city council representative or alderman, your county clerk, and your state senators. They are in need of your prayers and encouragement. Your voice will matter more if you already have an established relationship with them.


The first survey conducted revealed that at the end of March, churches were frantically pivoting to get worship services online and to meaningfully engage and care for church members as well as effectively serve their community while in quarantine. Just as the rest of the world was experiencing it, the speed at which the pandemic created change was more than enough for church leaders to handle. There were many uncertain things to worry about such as creating meaningful connections for members and the financial future of the church, but pastors and leaders were responding with the best of their ability and intentions.

The second survey conducted revealed that over a month into the pandemic, church leaders were both optimistic but also tired. For some, the new kind of innovative ministry in addition to added time at home with the family created a surge of energy and encouragement. Moreover, while giving trends seemed to be down for many churches, there remained an optimism around church finances. Some churches even saw an increase over their regular giving. However, the survey also revealed that a large number of pastors were working longer hours than usual which meant that the summer would be a crucial time for their rejuvenation.

The data in this survey suggests that church leaders across the nation are cautiously planning their return to in-person worship gatherings this summer. However, the return to in-person gatherings is not as simple as turning on a light switch. Many precautionary measures are being put into place to ensure health and safety for church members and the community at large. For some churches, their current virtual gatherings and their new norm of doing ministry are working well enough not to risk meeting, but instead to ensure safety and preserve energy for when they are able to meet at full capacity.

While we are seeing greater levels of what the “new norm” looks like in this stage of the pandemic, the future of how churches will meet and do ministry in the fall is no less uncertain than it was before. However, the courage and caution that some churches are taking during the summer months to meet will hopefully offer its members some reprieve from the several months of shelter-in-place orders, and hopefully, refresh the few that are attending through in-person worship and fellowship.

Regardless of whether churches are meeting in-person or not, this summer is a wonderful time to take advantage of granting leaders rejuvenation and a vision for the next season. Those who are taking advantage of virtual, small, and large group gatherings to equip and inspire their leaders this summer will likely find a more motivated and fresh leadership team for the fall and for beyond the pandemic.

Report by Daniel Yang, Ed Stetzer, Todd Wilson, and Andrew MacDonald

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