While the pandemic has caused many leaders to shift their models of operating, it has had a unique, and perhaps more significant impact on smaller churches as well as women in ministry spaces.
Recently on ChurchPulse Weekly, Sharon Hodde Miller (author, speaker and co-lead pastor at Bright City Church) joins podcast host Carey Nieuwhof and Barna’s Director of Published Research, Savannah Kimberlin, to discuss the dynamics of preaching to digital audiences, leading as a female pastor and present opportunities for smaller churches as they emerge from the pandemic.
Preaching to Digital Audiences
According to a Barna data collected last fall, nearly nine in 10 protestant pastors (88%) report that their identity as a leader is deeply tied to their preaching and teaching. Miller agrees with the majority of church leaders, noting that many pastors are struggling with heightened levels of anxiety amidst a culture where preaching has become a commodity to be consumed by customers.
In many ways, standard metrics of identity and success have been uprooted over the past year with the pandemic. Miller shares the ways in which her church’s approach to discipleship has taken on a new dimension in this season. She notes, “We had to report how many people were at our church on Sunday mornings […] I don’t think this metric means a ton. It means our church is growing, but that’s almost all it tells us. So I really felt like, ‘Is this discipling people?’”
Through the disruption of this past year, Miller has found freedom to define new metrics for success at her church. She states, “We leaned really hard into small groups, and very quickly, we nearly tripled our small groups.” She has found that COVID has cleared the field in many ways for relationships and discipleship to take central stage for the people at her church.
Leading as a Woman in Ministry
Miller shares candidly about her experience of leading as a female in a ministry space. For her doctorate study, she looked at the reasons some evangelical women decide to pursue a seminary degree. She found the most common theme to be that these women had someone in their life who named a gifting or calling they saw in the woman’s life. Miller shares, “God calls leaders into the church through his Church. The simple power of naming, which we see in Genesis and Creation, is that God speaks it into existence. I think that principle carries over into helping people discern their spot.”
Despite the fear of pushback Miller felt when she was first announced as a teaching pastor at their church, she is encouraged to see how positively the congregation has received her as a female in this role. “[When I got up on stage for the first time], it seemed so clear that the Holy Spirit had gone before us and prepared people’s hearts,” she notes. “We thought we were on the front edge of this, and God was like, ‘I’m on the front edge. You’re following me.’”
Miller feels she is seeing a shift in receptiveness to female leaders, adding “I see this tide change, honestly, even in complementarian churches where the tradition has been that men are the pastors. I still see this softening of men’s hearts for their sisters, and I’m very, very encouraged by it.”
Opportunities of Hybrid Church
Savannah Kimberlin shares recent data on how pastors evaluate their digital effectiveness presently. When asked, “Do you think your church is effectively engaging in leading congregants digitally?” less than one in 10 pastors (8%) said had full confidence they were doing so, while an additional 62 percent thought they were doing this somewhat effectively. Kimberlin notes, “This finding just reaffirms the fact that the digital church conversation isn’t going anywhere.”
At the same time, many church leaders (including Miller) are eager to get back to being in-person with their congregation. Miller shares what she feels has kept people at their church through this long season, adding, “You can get a good sermon anywhere, but you can’t get community in a podcast.” She feels many people are longing for a local church, noting, “[People] don’t just want good preaching, they want a pastor.”
Miller points out the ways in which this shift to a digital platform has been particularly difficult for smaller churches, but also wants to remind church leaders of the incredible gift that they have with their smaller size. She says, “It’s so easy to look at these other highly-produced, highly-resourced churches and feel, ‘I can’t keep up with that,’ and to probably stretch yourself to an unhealthy degree to keep up.”
Miller concludes, “We have really tried to receive the limitations of this season and to be confident that whatever we have to give God is enough.”
About the Research
This data was collected via an online survey of 408 U.S. Protestant pastors, conducted September 16–October 8, 2020. The sample error is plus or minus 4.8 percent at the 95 percent confidence level.
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, 2021