Guest Column: Carey Nieuwhof on Generational Preferences for In-Person Worship Post-COVID

The following is an excerpt from Carey Nieuwhof’s blog. To read the full story, click here.

So how many people are coming back to in-person gatherings when COVID is over?

Apparently fewer than you think. And fewer than you’d hope.

According to a recent Barna study, Six Questions About the Future of the Hybrid Church Experience, only 41 percent of Gen Z say that when COVID is over, they want to return to primarily in-person worship. 42 percent of Millennials say they prefer primarily in-person worship. Which means, of course, that the majority don’t.

Looking at this, it’s easy to think “Well, this is just an unprecedented year. Things will get back to normal soon.”

Maybe, except it’s hard to go back to normal when normal is disappearing.

The very low attendance numbers that many church leaders often dismiss as medical (i.e. caused by COVID) may actually be a much deeper cultural and generational shift than we realize.

A further drill down shows that parents are looking at hybrid options (combination of in person and digital) more seriously than non-parents. And that women are more open to digital church than men.

Crisis is an accelerator, and so many of the trends we’ve been seeing over the last few decades are now happening faster than ever, in real time.

The digital genie is out of the bottle.

Your church is still around. The Church is still around. It’s just  leaving the building.

Here’s the challenge with not changing: vaccines can’t solve cultural and generational shifts. Innovation will, but vaccines won’t.


Now, have a look at the chart above. You know who really desires physical gatherings?


Seventy-one percent of Boomers say they want primarily in-person church attendance after COVID is over. For Gen Z, only 41 percent prefer primarily physical gatherings in the future. That’s a 30-point gap.

A 30-point gap is a large gap… and here’s how it might be impacting your leadership.

First, the average senior pastor is a Boomer. According to a Barna survey, the average age of the senior pastors in America in 2017 was 54. That’s an almost four-year-old statistic, which would now push that average age into the late fifties.

Look at the composition of many church boards, senior leadership teams and key donors (or even volunteers), and you might get some group-think going based around your own personal preferences: doesn’t everybody want to come back to attend in person?  According to this research, that’s exactly how older adults would think.

Except it’s not reflective of anyone under age 55.

If you think Gen Z is an anomaly, again, look at the chart. Only a minority of Millennial, Gen Z— and even Gen X—want to primarily gather in person in the future.

The changes happening right now in church attendance preferences are not just cultural, they’re generational.

So what can you do?

First, get some young leaders around your table. Don’t just get them sharing opinions… get them making decisions.

Second, rethink the allocation of resources you’re spending on in-person gatherings versus online ministry. You’ll make your own choices, but most churches are spending less than 10% of their time and budget on the very thing that will probably give them the greatest potential for the future—a strong online presence.

In many ways, this confirms what you already know. Regular church attendance has been dropping for decades. The crisis appears to have accelerated that.

In person isn’t going away. But it likely won’t play the role it used to even as recently as a year ago.

If your mission is to fill buildings, then keep going with your current strategy. But if your mission is to reach people, it might be time to rethink things.

Barna Access Digital Church

To read Carey Nieuwhof’s full blog post, click here.

To learn more about to learn more about Barna’s new journal, Six Questions About the Future of the Hybrid Church Experience, click here. Check out Barna’s Digital Church channel on Barna Access Plus to peruse a list of content specifically curated to help pastors and teams navigate the digital or hybrid church space they currently find themselves in.

Feature image by Daniel Morton on Unsplash.

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