Churches Will Gather Again, But Digital Discipleship Is Here to Stay

Historically, large-scale crises create a “new normal.” Digital discipleship will be the new normal. The changes our churches, businesses and other institutions implement in response to abrupt challenges often lead to long-term transformations. In the wake of the Great Depression, for example, churches became critical providers of social services in a model that has continued today. After 9/11, emergency planning and training in churches ramped up.

We’re likely to see a similar impact from COVID-19. Not only does Americans’ longing for spiritual guidance increase in a crisis, but the pandemic has forced churches to be innovative in how they serve and reach their congregations. Churches have played a key role in connecting people in a time of unprecedented disconnection. Most notably, the digital strategies churches have employed over the past two months have fostered relational connection in a new and much-needed way.

While many states are lifting restrictions on gatherings, the majority of churches are not meeting yet. And if they are, there are strict limitations on the amounts of people in a building. As we see a new rise COVID-19 infections, many churches will think twice before meeting soon.

On our Barna ChurchPulse podcast last month, for example, my co-host Carey Nieuwhof and I interviewed Orange County Pastor Bianca Juarez Olthoff. She discussed how virtual services have enabled church leaders to reach new people. As suspicious people signed on to watch services, churches have been able to change their perspectives and engage them in new ways.

Even unprepared churches have stepped up to reach the public during this time. Before COVID, just 2% of practicing Christians said they attend a church that only used a video or livestream sermon. By the first week of May, nine out of 10 pastors (93%) reported they were streaming Sunday services online. In one of our April surveys, 56% of pastors said their church would “definitely” continue to provide digital worship services once social distancing is over. Only 1% would “definitely not” continue digital services.

This “worship shifting” has allowed churches to reach more people – both current members and new ones. By late April, pastors were telling us their church’s weekly online attendance was actually higher than a typical in-person, real-time Sunday service, and two-thirds of practicing Christians have viewed a worship service online during the past four weeks. The burst of online worship participation has waned somewhat as the novelty has worn off, but the fact is that digital discipleship and digital worship will be features of the Covid-changed landscape.

Trust in houses of worship regarding the pandemic is high right now. Christians express greater confidence in their church’s response to the crisis than their workplace or government (85% say they are “extremely” or “mostly” confident” in their church versus 56% in their workplace and 50% in the U.S. government). Three out of four also say they would reach out to their pastor or priest (75%) or a friend from church (75%) with a spiritual or emotional need.

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Source: Church Leaders