For the past six weeks, Barna has been checking in on the state of U.S. pastors through a national pastor panel, gathering data on how church leaders and their congregations are faring in light of the current pandemic. Each Monday, on the ChurchPulse Weekly podcast, Carey Nieuwhof and David Kinnaman, along with expert guests, discuss the findings from the most recent research, offering insight into the current moment as well as the coming days.
This week, hosts Nieuwhof and Kinnaman were joined by fellow faith leaders Mike Todd, Jo Saxton and Skye Jethani to discuss the importance of authenticity, how churches plan to restructure after the pandemic is over and what pastors say is their greatest hope for the Church after COVID-19. You can watch the latest broadcast of ChurchPulse Weekly here, or, come Thursday (April 30, 2020), you can listen to the most recent episode wherever you get your podcasts.
Two in three pastors say precautions will be taken when their congregation gathers again
With the nation slowly beginning to reopen and many states announcing the phases of their approaches, churches have a somewhat better, though still vague, idea of when they might be able to meet in person again. In fact, this week, nearly two in five U.S. church leaders (37%) feel they’d be able to host a church service in their usual building or location in May. Another half (46%), however, have their sights set on June and 16 percent believe they may wait until July or August.
After a long period of social distancing and with the risk of infection lower, church leaders are now faced with a new challenge: deciding how their congregation will meet once their church is allowed to gather again in person. Sixty-two percent of pastors say their church will meet for worship with precautions in place, while another one in 10 (13%) says their church will not meet in person right away, but instead wait until they feel comfortable enough to do so. On the other end of the spectrum, 12 percent of church leaders say their worship services will be the same as before social distancing. Another one in 10 (13%) says their church doesn’t currently have a plan in place yet.
Of the 62 percent who mentioned precautionary measures, four in five (84%) say they will ask people who are feeling sick to stay home, three-quarters (77%) will ask people to avoid touching (i.e., handshakes, hugs, etc.) and sit farther apart (75%). Seven in 10 (72%) confirm they’ll continue to offer an online service. Half (53%) note they will not pass offering plates and another two in five (41%) say they will not share in communion.
Pastors offer perspectives on leading well despite personal struggles
This week, Barna asked pastors a number of questions relating to how confident they were in leading, including their comfort with publicly admitting to uncertainty during this time. There’s no question on this point: All U.S. pastors agree on some level that “leading my church well through this global crisis means acknowledging that I don’t have all the answers” (72% strongly agree, 26% agree, 1% somewhat agree).
However, when it comes to sharing personal struggles with their congregation, the numbers shift slightly. While the majority of church leaders disagrees that their church would lose confidence in them if they admitted to personal struggles related to the current crisis (23% strongly disagree, 43% disagree, 20% somewhat disagree), another one in 10 voices concern about their congregants’ perceptions (2% strongly agree, 1% agree, 10% somewhat agree). Though 85 percent of pastors believe they can be open with their congregation, some feel disclosure of their personal struggles through COVID-19 would be inappropriate (2% strongly agree, 6% agree, 7% somewhat agree).
“[At my church], we believe that authenticity is the highest currency,” says Mike Todd, executive pastor of Transformation Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “It’s more valuable than money…. The Church has been so buttoned up for years—[Christians] want to present a level of excellence that everybody knows is not real, but we still try to somehow keep to this. However, I think that our biggest way to convert people from watchers or viewers to people who partner is authenticity.”
Todd concludes, “My encouragement to you is not to shy away from what’s uncomfortable. Remember, growth and comfort are arch enemies. They never can coexist in the same place. In this season, none of us are comfortable, but that means we’re all growing.”
Church leaders assess online effectiveness and ongoing connection in their churches
The global pandemic, while bringing much of daily life to a halt, has offered opportunities for pastors to assess church operations, priorities and goals. When asked how their church was rethinking operations for the future, four in five church leaders (80%) respond that their church will continue to offer an online service, with another three-quarters (73%) noting they are assessing the effectiveness of their digital and online presence. Half (55%) say church staff is developing a new strategy and / or creating resources to encourage connectedness within the church, perhaps a testament to how much this time of isolation has impacted congregations. Three in 10 (28%) say they are evaluating the benefit of all church programs included in the budget.
Author, speaker and pastor Skye Jethani offers pastors food for thought as they restructure their church operations: “We like to industrialize [large ministry], but that is not how disciples are made. Disciples are made in an artisanal way. It’s a hands-on product. It’s life-on-life, it’s relationship-on-relationship. At some point, you have to take these large gatherings again, whether incarnate or digital, and break them down into smaller and smaller groupings so that relationship can happen. I’m not saying that big is bad, but there’s only so much engagement you can do there.”
Growth, connection and trust: pastors share greatest hopes for the Church after COVID
What can the Church look forward to after the global pandemic has run its course? Given the option to select one response from a list of possible scenarios, exactly half of U.S. church leaders (50%) say they hope for an awakening of people’s faith and trust in God. Seventeen percent hope churchgoers will have a greater sense of appreciation for their community, and 13 percent want to see the Church continuing to find meaningful ways to connect throughout the week.
Less-selected responses include hopes that the Church will show a greater level of care and love for their community (8%), that families will have grown more connected (5%), that the Church will continue to show concern for the vulnerable or sick (2%) and that churchgoers will have a greater sense of appreciation for life (2%).
As churches step into a “new normal,” author and speaker Jo Saxton urges pastors to make the most of their current moment as our reality once again begins to shift.
“I think a potential pitfall would be [for us to think], ‘Finally it’s over! That was just a seasonal thing. We managed that. Let’s get back to the way we were,’” comments Saxton. “I think this is an opportunity for us even now to work at how we disciple the community leaders who aren’t always the positional leaders. Because if we’ve been fragmented, it’s our community leaders who hold everything together.”
She concludes, “I think it’s an opportunity for us to pay attention and to look again at the inequities that have been exposed as a result of this crisis. [This isn’t] a back to normal, but an emerging normal… and our biggest pitfall would be to waste this moment, think, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m so glad it’s over,’ rather than actually taking this time to look [how we’re discipling in this moment].”
In an effort to help serve the Church during this time of unprecedented disruption and as a continued part of our research into the State of the Church 2020, Barna and Gloo have created the ChurchPulse Weekly Crisis Toolkit, a free resource that includes three ways to help pastors see clearly and lead effectively in this time of uncertainty. To learn more about the Crisis Toolkit, click here.
About the Research
Barna Group conducted this survey online among 1,243 Protestant Senior Pastors from March 20–April 27, 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
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