With the number of U.S. COVID cases once again on the rise as colder weather sets in and political polarization still palpable across the nation following the recent presidential election, pastors and their people may feel just as uncertain now as they did at the start of the pandemic seven months ago.
In recent ChurchPulse Weekly episodes, host Carey Nieuwhof and guest Mark Sayers—cultural commentator, writer, speaker and pastor—discuss faith, safety and opportunity during crisis. Below, find highlights from this two-part discussion on faith during crisis.
Faith Is Growing Amid the Pandemic
In the early weeks of the crisis, U.S. pastors primarily believed that, due to the pandemic, their congregants’ faith would either grow and increase (50%) or remain the same (50%). Now, over six months into the pandemic, church leaders are more likely to say their people’s faith will either stay the same (64%) or decrease (14%), with only one in five (22%) believing the pandemic will cause their congregants personal faith journey to grow.
The spiritual climate is completely different in Australia, notes Sayers, sharing statistics from Australian research firm McCrindle on how spirituality is growing in Australia amid the pandemic.
Sayers comments, “I saw this as an opportunity through difficulty—C.S. Lewis said that God speaks to us most loudly in moments of suffering—to actually accelerate the growth of our church.”
Freedom vs. Safety—Is the Government Regulating Too Much?
Nieuwhof, a native of Canada, and Sayers, from Australia, briefly commented on the political polarization felt in the U.S. right now, especially in regard to COVID-19 restrictions.
Guidelines were more stringent in Sayers’ hometown of Melbourne during the early months of the crisis, causing him to rethink how he viewed local guidelines and mandates related to COVID-19. His key takeaway, thinking through government regulations shouldn’t be viewed through the lens of freedom, but instead through the lens of safety—do people feel safe in their communities and in their churches?
“I had to think about this as a pastor,” comments Sayers, “because we can easily think about [regulations] as being stopped [from worshipping together], but if I think through a context of people asking, ‘Are you keeping me safe?’ that changes also how I think about church.”
Reimagining the Purpose of Your Church’s Digital Presence
While many churches in America (69%) are once again meeting in person, a rise in cases across the nation could lead to more faith communities closing their doors again. Right now, it looks like the hybrid church model (which promotes a mix of in-person and digital engagement) is here to stay.
Sayers states that church leaders have a huge opportunity right now to restructure the way they engage with their congregants and broader community online. Gone are the days that social media is used for PR—now, pastors should be using their digital presence to provide resources and tools for their people as they navigate this new normal.
“We shifted from, we’re not going to do church and you watch, to, we’re equipping you to do church where you are, “says Sayers, speaking of his church’s current approach to digital services.
“If there’s a theology of the new living temple in the world being the people of God, what if the holy place isn’t the auditorium or the stage? What if the holy place—like in the New Testament—is people’s homes, someone watching in their bedroom or with their family.”
Social Media Promotes Charismatic Authority
With the rise of social media, Sayers sees a crucial shift in how society mediates power.
Citing Max Weber’s classifications of authority, Sayers highlights the accelerated a transition from institutional to charismatic authority. Rather than gaining power through association with a church or powerful organization,“if you’re an engaging, funny person who’s entertaining, you can now have a platform that’s disconnected from the institution.”
Thus, social media has begun a communications redistribution from “vertical” to “horizontal” contact. Even as congregations listen to their pastors, they will be deeply influenced by from bloggers and YouTubers who have the role of peer rather than leader.
“Charismatic power inherently pulls apart institutions,” warns Sayers, counseling pastors to be attentive to the ways that the Internet can destabilize churches’ traditional patterns of influence.
The Church Can Intercede in the Digital World
Sayers recommends that pastors take these issues seriously and engage them in the congregation. “We need to teach how to love each other online…How do you show grace, and mercy, and kindness, and the fruit of the spirit, in a digital space?” asks Sayers.
One concrete step his church recommends: beginning the day without screens. “You want to win the day—where you’re set on what the Holy Spirit wants for you that day, not what the algorithm wants for you.” Providing these kinds of disciplines for congregants can help them navigate the challenges of life online.
And while it’s a challenge during the pandemic, he also encourages churches to emphasize small-group efforts which can help people step outside of their digitally curated echo chambers. “The church is still an environment where people meet face to face,” and can help foster relationships across lines of polarization. As cultural trust in people and institutions decays, the Church’s voice of faith may be unique.
About the Research
COVID-19 Data: Barna Group conducted these online surveys among Protestant Senior Pastors from March 20–September 28, 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
Week 13, n=256, July 9-14, 2020
Week 14, n=285, July 24-26, 2020
Week 15, n=336, August 13-17, 2020
Week 16, n=315, August 27-31, 2020
Week 17, n=422, September 10-18, 2020
Week 18, n=475, September 24-28, 2020
Barna Research 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