016 | How the Church Should Be Responding During Crisis, How COVID is Impacting Our Faith, and What the New Church Could Look Like with Scott Sauls

July 09, 2020

With COVID-19 cases rising across the nation, ChurchPulse Weekly podcast hosts Nieuwhof and Kinnaman look at tracking data on the pandemic to see how the health crisis is currently affecting pastors and their congregants. Scott Sauls, senior pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, TN joins the conversation to discuss reopening, in-person worship precautions and ongoing digital engagement.

With COVID-19 cases rising across the nation, ChurchPulse Weekly podcast hosts Carey Nieuwhof and David Kinnaman return to tracking data on the pandemic to see how the health crisis is currently affecting pastors and their congregants. Scott Sauls, senior pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, joins the conversation to discuss reopening, in-person worship precautions and ongoing digital engagement in a season of hybrid church. You can watch the latest broadcast of ChurchPulse Weekly here or listen to the most recent episode wherever you get your podcasts. 

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Overall, Pastors and Their People Are Doing Well, Despite Rising Cases of COVID-19
Recent data from the last poll conducted among Barna’s pastor panel (June 26-29, 2020) show that U.S. Protestant pastors say they are doing well. In fact, over four in five (41% very good, 42% good) say this, with only 17 percent noting they are “okay.” Pastors also generally believe their congregants are doing well, with just over 14 percent answering that their people are doing very “good,” three in five (59%) saying congregants are “good” and a quarter (25%) saying their attendees are just “okay.”

When asked how much COVID-19 has affected their church, pastors’ responses look similar to those from a month into the pandemic. Only 3 percent say the health crisis has not affected their church, while over nine in 10 pastors say their church has seen varying degrees of impact (20% a little, 63% some, 14% a lot). As for church facilities, as of recent polling, only 5 percent remain completely closed to all congregants and staff. Another one in five is open for staff use only (22%) or small gatherings or meetings (18%). Over half of churches (54%) are open for normal use—52 percent with precautions in place and 2 percent without.

“The differences between churches that are open or closed aren’t as big as you’d imagine,” Kinnaman says in his review of the data. “I was sort of expecting the Northeast and the West to be almost categorically closed, but what we find is, like in states as big as California or New York, there’s actually a big range of churches and environments in those places—from urban to suburban to rural. We’re actually finding that one of the key differentiators between open and not open is whether the pastor perceives that it has affected their congregation. Of those that are not open, 86 percent (16% a lot, 70 % some) believe that COVID has affected their church, but among those that have opened, it’s 69 percent (12% a lot, 57% some).”

Data also show that churches that are open are significantly more likely to say their greatest priority for the church is communicating a message of hope (65% vs. 44% of churches that are completely or partially closed).

Attendance, Both In-Person and Online, Is Currently Trending Down
Over the last few months, Barna has continued to track when pastors hope to once again open their churches up for in-person worship as well as what online attendance has looked like. Recent data show that while over half of pastors (56%) say their church is already open, a little less than a quarter (23%) hope to reopen soon (July / August), though 18 percent are waiting for later in the year and a remaining 3 percent are holding out hope for next year.

Online attendance has fluctuated drastically over the past few months—before the first digital Easter, attendance was trending high, but engagement rates seemed to even out about a month after. Currently, it seems online attendance rates are low when compared to typical in-person Sunday worship, with three in five pastors (60%) saying their online attendance last week was less than average (22% much less, 38% slightly less). Only one in five says it is the same (21%) or higher (9% slightly higher, 10% much higher).

Financial giving has also taken a substantial hit since the pandemic caused churches to close down in March. While just over half of pastors (53%) say giving has stayed about the same, another one in three (33%) says it is down (8% significantly, 25% slightly). Only 14 percent of pastors say giving has increased (13% slightly, 1% significantly). Churches that remain closed are much more likely to say giving was down significantly (16% vs. 2% of churches that are open).

“Pre-COVID, we were somewhere in the 2,000 to 2,300 range each Sunday,” Sauls comments, when asked how his church’s attendance has changed since reopening. “Right now—I’ll just think about yesterday—we have probably 600 to 650 on a good week.”

“We’re an intergenerational church. We have a pretty even spread across four generations,” Sauls notes, assessing who is currently attending in-person worship services. “I would say those who are in the senior citizen category are staying away. … Then, people with kids, with young kids [especially] have been more of a challenge, and I think that’s for various reasons. … We’re also seeing a drop in evidence that our people are bringing people to online services or in-person. I think people are just starting maybe to think more like a bunker mentality and less like a missional mentality.”

One in 10 Pastors Is Concerned Their Congregation’s Faith Will Diminish During the Pandemic
Current wavering church engagement has caused pastors to rethink what attendance will look like post-crisis. Fifteen percent of church leaders are optimistic their attendance will have grown once the pandemic is over, while 37 percent thinks their attendance rates will have stayed the same. The plurality—two in five (43%)—however, believe attendance will have declined (41% slightly, 2% dramatically). Another 5 percent confess feeling unsure what to expect.

As the state of attendance and financial giving worries pastors, some church leaders also admit concern for their congregants’ faith journey. At the beginning of the pandemic, pastors were not very concerned about their people’s faith diminishing (1% March 20-23, 4% April 7-13)—but apprehension has grown. Now, 11 percent of pastors believe their people’s faith will diminish during the pandemic. Still, three in five (62%) see it staying the same, and just over a quarter (27%) says this period will see an increase in faith in their church.

Churches that have remained closed are significantly more likely to indicate the faith of their congregants may be declining (17% vs. 7 of churches that are open).

Sauls offers food for thought in regard to digital discipleship and the changing attitudes towards church engagement during this season: “If we’re really looking at a seismic shift in how people do church, my biggest concern is that I feel like this whole season, while on the one hand giving [people] incredible access, on the other hand, it feeds the American individualist spirit, where we just curate our own spiritual experiences. … We lose something very significant, I think, of what Christ meant for a disciple to be when true community is replaced by virtual pretense.”

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About the Research
COVID-19 Data: 
Barna Group conducted these online surveys among 2,153 Protestant Senior Pastors from March 20–June 15, 2020. Participants are all members of Barna Group’s Church Panel. Minimal weighting has been used to ensure the sample is representative based on denomination, region and church size.

Data Collection Dates
Week 1, n=222, March 20-23, 2020
Week 2, n=212, March 24-30, 2020
Week 3, n=195, March 31-April 6, 2020
Week 4, n=246, April 7-13, 2020
Week 5, n=204, April 14-20, 2020
Week 6, n=164, April 21-27, 2020
Week 7, n=167, April 28-May 4, 2020
Week 8, n=165, May 5-11, 2020
Week 9, n=184, May 12-18, 2020
Weeks 10 and 11, n=191, May 19-June 1, 2020
Week 12, n=203, June 26-29, 2020

Featured image by Anna Earl on Unsplash.

About Barna
Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.

© Barna Group, 2020