Americans are trading their masks for their sunglasses as vaccine numbers rise and COVID-19 cases drop. But many pastors are wondering: will the public’s renewed fervor for the outside world include a return to church?
This question centered discussion during the second installment of Barna’s forums last week. Pastors and Christian leaders in South Florida, Kansas City, Columbus, and Dallas-Fort Worth gathered to learn how members of their local communities are practicing their faith and how the pandemic changed their engagement with the church.
Charlie Dates, pastor of Progressive Baptist Church in Chicago, shared early in each forum that, when the pandemic first hit, members at Progressive asked him if they could call off their congregational fast that had begun before the crisis struck. But as they persisted in the fast, many realized that they needed such a spiritual practice more than ever before. They began to find new ways they could minister to their hurting community members by partnering with others to distribute meals, Instacart codes, and laptops for virtual schooling.
“These are things that we should have already been doing,” Dates said. “But God has given us the blessed privilege of trouble.”
The COVID-19 pandemic was difficult to navigate, but it wasn’t the only challenge Dates and fellow pastors faced over the past year. Political unrest and racial tensions escalated. Unemployment and isolation rattled individuals and families alike. And shifting to digital church services and engagement not only presented a technological challenge, but, for many pastors, this transition revealed a theological tension: what role should digital spaces play in the gathering of believers?
The “blessed privilege of trouble” may not feel as painful as it did during the pandemic’s height, but pastors now reckon with this question in a new context, wondering if their pews will ever fill as they once did.
Favoring the Physical
78 percent of US adults agree with the statement “experiencing God in a church service alongside others, in person, is very important to me.” This was one of the many valuable insights offered in the forums as David Kinnaman, President of Barna Group, and Savannah Kimberlin, Barna's Director of Published Research, shared their latest research.
Several pastors in attendance noted the disconnect between that statistic and the number of people who are slowly returning to their churches. But having this knowledge, understanding that their local communities do value in-person services, can change the way these pastors plan for and navigate the next few months as summer grows hot and church attendance traditionally tapers off.
Kimberlin and Kinnaman also shared that some respondents say they have been drifting from their faith practice during the pandemic. Kinnaman highlighted this phenomenon specifically among Millennials, noting the opportunity that churches have to support the Millennial population in new and creative ways. In Kansas City, 13 percent of Millennial churchgoers agreed with the statement “I’m not interested in church engagement because I’ve been rethinking or drifting from my faith practice.” They were joined by 18 percent of their peers in Columbus and 17 percent of their peers in South Florida. The numbers were lower in Dallas-Fort Worth, where only 15 percent of Millennials said they were drifting from their faith.
These differences across regions underscored the importance of church leaders listening to locals. As pastors learn about which national trends matched their cities and which differed, they are better equipped to respond to the needs of the community members within their specific contexts.
Highlighting the Hybrid
Perhaps the most staggering statistic came from Kimberlin’s research: one in three US adults who have ever attended a church expect churches to make some form of digital worship option available after the pandemic. In Kansas City, while most people said they expected primarily physical gatherings, a third said they expected both, which Kimberlin referred to as a hybrid option. Similar polling was seen in South Florida, Columbus, and Dallas-Fort Worth.
Mark Matlock, Insights Lead for Barna, used this polling to walk attendees through a framework for putting data into practice. We can’t predict the future, Matlock said, but we can imagine it in our contexts through a few different lenses: embrace, challenge, adapt, and ignore.
As the demand for a hybrid church solution grows, Matlock argues that embracing this idea may lead a church to offer online services that seek to provide as much connection and engagement as their in-person counterparts. Challenging that data point may look like questioning the digital-as-equal-to-physical trend and emphasizing the importance of the physical gathering of believers. Adapting may look like the approach Bennett Johnson in South Florida has taken: viewing the online experience as “the lobby,” a place of welcome and connection but not a replacement for the full, in-person experience. Lastly, Matlock said, churches can choose to ignore the data point, simply moving forward with the plans they already have in place.
In the forum chats and breakout sessions led by Global Leadership Network and Great Commandment Network, pastors and ministry leaders discussed their evolving relationship with the digital space and their desires to use it well in service of others to the glory of God. Reward Sibanda in Dallas-Fort Worth clung to the data that said four in ten unchurched people in his community have watched a church service online during the pandemic. What might it look like, he wondered, to continue engaging that population that was reached during a time when physical proximity wasn’t an option but will be in the months to come?
Nicole Dinsmore in Kansas noted that the data showed that women have felt less connected to church digitally than men. She pointed out that women often post more on social media, which means they are spending time in digital spaces, but the fact that they say they felt less fulfilled by online church made her want to think more creatively and hospitably about how to steward the digital space as she reached out to women.
Brad Hill, Chief Solutions Officer at Barna, shared a few digital tools and services that are helping pastors connect with people in their communities. The Life’s Big Questions Campaign, for example, reaches people through targeted ads that speak to major issues like mental illness and divorce. Those who engage with the ads can request contact from a pastor, which has led to text conversations, phone calls, and even face-to-face meetings between pastors and community members.
“People will go deep, and quickly, online,” Hill said as he relayed stories of domestic abuse and depression that respondents have shared. By connecting hurting people with pastors who can care for them and refer them to mental health professionals and additional services, these tools empower churches to steward the digital in service of the personal.
As pastors and ministry leaders connected with each other during the forums, even inviting each other into local collaborations and initiatives, the power of the body of Christ coming together revealed itself as one of the many blessings of the privilege of trouble.
Barna and Gloo will continue to provide cutting edge data and opportunities to come together around difficult questions and creative solutions surfaced in the City Toolkit.