One year into the nation’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, churches have taken to the internet like never before to conduct worship services, foster community and encourage spiritual growth from a distance. That means even churches with no experience with digital ministry have been faced with the challenge of figuring out how to pray online together. Could digital group prayer experiences be a feature of the post-COVID-19 “new normal?”
Barna Group has been studying U.S. adults’ openness to digital church engagement through a study of the State of Digital Church, answering questions like: What works and what doesn’t in a hybrid church context? How many churchgoers are actually attending online church right now? Are churchgoers open to inviting their friends and family to digital church services?
Now, we conclude our series on the State of Digital Church with the new journal Five Questions Church Every Leader Should Ask About Digital Prayer, produced in partnership with Alpha. Overall, our team has learned that, while there are still multiple hurdles to digital church participation, those who do engage prayerfully in this worship context report meaningful shared experiences and encounters with God.
Sixty-Eight Percent of Christians Are Willing to Engage in Online Prayer
Steady, positive engagement in prayer in general has given way to openness to new digital forums for prayer. More than two-thirds of Christians (68%) say they are a least somewhat open to actively participating in a time of prayer during an online church service gathering. This more than doubles the percentage of non-Christians who express such openness. Still, that means one in three adults outside Christianity (32%)—and even one-quarter of those with no faith at all (23%)—would still consider participation in digital times of prayer with a church.
Does professed interest translate to activity? To answer this, we must also acknowledge that there are still few opportunities to satisfy this curiosity. Many churches are new to hosting online services, let alone other digital or hybrid gatherings that emphasize group prayer. Most adults who have attended churches providing online services through the pandemic (60%) say this is the only digital activity through their church. Additionally, we know that, among those who have actually watched church online during the pandemic, not all (just 53%) actually follow along with prayer times while viewing anyway. Where engagement with digital prayer or other aspects of COVID-era church life lag, we’re likely observing a lack of church options, a lack of congregant participation or both.
As researchers examined various opportunities for digital corporate prayer, they set a baseline for expectations by looking at participation in in-person corporate prayer. When asked if they had attended an in-person corporate prayer gathering within the past year (that is, both before and during the COVID-19 response), one-third of Christians (32%) says yes. A similar percentage (28%) reports attending a digital prayer gathering during that time.
Overall, the majority of Christians does not typically participate in gatherings intended for group prayer (68% in-person, 72% digital)—not a huge surprise, considering the tendency to prefer solo and silent prayer. Prayer in more defined groups leans toward an in-person format; 43 percent of Christians say they usually participate in small group prayer in person at least monthly, as opposed to 30 percent who do so digitally. Prayer in large group settings is, likewise, more often an in-person (36%) rather than online exercise for Christians (27%).
Again, this could speak to preference but also to availability, as Barna’s research during the pandemic shows digital and hybrid ministry approaches rarely reach beyond the standard service and sermon. As it stands, six in 10 Christians participate in neither large (62% “never”) nor small (59%) group prayer digitally; in person, far fewer have “never” engaged (35% small group prayer, 40% large group prayer).
It is striking that those who practice their faith less often, like non-practicing Christians, still will, on occasion, attend prayer groups or gatherings. One in five non-practicing Christians says they pray digitally with a small group (20%) or a large group (19%) of people at least monthly. Furthermore, the data suggest that many of these non-practicing Christians who, by definition, are less active in a church have a notable interest in digital group prayer. One in four (24%) goes so far as to say that no barrier would keep them from considering participating in a digital group prayer experience.
As more churches add to or strengthen digital formats for prayer, can they also provide an onramp toward deeper engagement with church life at large?
Nearly Half of Practicing Christians Are Open to Prayer in Online Church Services
Across the board, in-person corporate prayer is still more common than digital corporate prayer. But some people are more open to and present in online group prayer. Data show these may be churchgoers who already attend or prioritize the kinds of church environments that are likely to be cultivating a digital prayer culture. These adaptable attendees could also be helpful in welcoming fellow congregants who find digital church options inaccessible or uninteresting.
Whether your church leans digital or analog in its approach to prayer, there is much to learn from these eager attendees.
The data above highlight an opportunity for church leaders who are interested in launching or strengthening their church’s digital prayer gatherings. One strategy for bolstering digital prayer engagement is to identify and nurture these four groups—younger generations of Christians, non-white Christians, practicing Christians and churchgoers with high digital openness (learn more about digital openness in our new report)—who are the most likely to get onboard with digital prayer opportunities. In this way, church leaders can begin digital prayer gatherings with a solid foundation of attendees who will both engage in these times of corporate prayer while also extending invitations to churchgoers who are less likely to find their way into this setting.
About the Research
The research presented for Barna’s 2020 Digital Church study was conducted online from September 1 to 15, 2020. In total, Barna surveyed 1,302 U.S. adults. The sample error for this study is ±2.5 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.
U.S. adults are U.S. residents 18 and older.
Practicing Christians identify as Christian, agree strongly that faith is very important in their lives and attended church at least once a month, on average, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Non-Christians identify with a faith other than Christianity (“religious non-Christians”) or with no faith at all (“atheists / agnostics / nones”).
Churched adults Attended a church service at least once every six months, on average, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic
Unchurched adults Did not attend church at least once every six months, on average, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
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, 2021