Mar 31, 2021

What Churchgoers Missed Most About In-Person Services


It was nearly impossible for congregations to meet together for Easter last year. Now, 12 months later, pastors are continuing to adapt to digital and hybrid ministry.

As church leaders reflect on how their ministry has been challenged and shaped in the past year, it’s worth taking note what churchgoers said they missed most about in-person worship experiences in the midst of social distancing.

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The Majority of U.S. Pastors Plans to Provide Digital and In-Person Easter Services this Year
Last year, though a few pastors indicated that they and their congregation were going to meet outdoors (10%) or as usual (2%), over half (58%) planned and executed their first ever purely Digital Easter.

This year, the majority of pastors (80%) is excited to celebrate Easter with congregants inside their church buildings with COVID-19 precautions in place. Another one in five (22%) is meeting outdoors to accommodate social distancing during the worship service.

Even with so many pastors and their people gathering in person, digital options have not been placed on the back-burner. As of late March, seven in 10 pastors (71%) say they will livestream their Easter services, and another 17 percent are recording an Easter message to send out via video or podcast.

Communion and Live Sermons Named in Most Missed Aspects of Church
So what did congregants miss most about in-person services when social distancing guidelines and COVID-19 restrictions kept them from worshipping in person? In late summer of 2020, just a few months into the pandemic, Barna asked this of churchgoers—that is self-identified Christians who attended a church at least twice in the past year, on average—and received varying opinions.

Among churchgoers whose services were still strictly online per this survey, taking communion / Eucharist (24%) and socializing with others before and after service (23%)—items that are often difficult to replicate digitally—were identified as the top two most missed elements. Other aspects of worship that rose to the top of the list included listening to a live service or homily (21%), the chance to connect with like-minded people (19%) and greeting others or passing the peace during service (17%).

In-person service characteristics that were not as frequently missed, but still noted, included Sunday school / small groups / Bible study (10%), corporate prayer (8%) and having childcare during service (4%).

When Barna analysts grouped responses into categories of social and non-social aspects that were missed, the data highlighted that nearly all respondents (90%) missed church for non-social reasons, which includes listening to a live sermon, reading and liturgies and taking communion / Eucharist. Still, a large portion (85%) also admits to missing the social aspects of gathering, including greeting others or passing the peace during service, corporate prayer and connecting with church leaders in person.

Across age groups, commonly missed themes included taking communion / Eucharist and having the chance to meet new people, though more unique differences did emerge within the data. Researchers found that Boomers are more likely than Millennials to say that they miss socializing with people before and after service (27% Boomers vs. 17% Millennials). Meanwhile, Millennials—along with Boomers—are more likely than Gen X to say they miss having the chance to connect with like-minded people (23% Millennials, 14% Gen X, 21% Boomers). Younger churchgoers are also more likely than older generations to miss live music (20%) and volunteering (16%) at church, but are less likely to miss listening to a live sermon or homily (12%).

The data hint that while older generations are more likely to hold traditional church practices in high regard, younger generations are less likely to view these as important and instead long for chances to connect with and serve alongside others. Data was collected for all generations in this survey, however, the sample sizes for Gen Z and Elder churchgoers are too low to report on. 

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In a season that continues to force church leaders to shift, innovate and stretch, it’s important for pastors to continue checking in with their people on a regular basis to see how congregants are doing and what they’re missing or needing from their church experience. Gathering this information is vital for church leaders to know how to effectively engage with and disciple the people in their care.

More research and tools to prepare you for Digital Easter and beyond:

  • Learn more about Barna’s research on the first Digital Easter (2020) in this article and blog post.
  • Subscribe to Barna Access Plus to gain access to valuable tools and assessments that allow you to check in with your staff, congregants and city as the “new normal” continues to shift.

About the Research

COVID-19 Pastor Survey data: Barna Group conducted these online surveys among 212 Protestant Senior Pastors from March 24-30, 2020 and again among 514 Protestant Senior Pastors from March 16-22, 2021. 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. 

August 2020 Omnipoll data: The research for this study was conducted online from August 17 to September 2, 2020. Barna surveyed 1484 U.S. adults. The sample error for this study is ±2.3 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

Churchgoers / Churched adults attended a church service at least once every six months, on average, in the past year.

Millennials: Born between 1984 and 1998
Gen X: Born between 1965 and 1983
Boomers: Born between 1946 and 1964

Photo by John Price on Unsplash

© Barna Group, 2021.

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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