As the U.S. continues to see an uptick in COVID-19 cases across the nation, more church leaders are pondering next steps for their churches, especially those that have already reopened. Barna data show that a plurality of pastors has voiced struggles with maintaining digital engagement and discipleship amid the pandemic, but they are also concerned about the health and safety of their people.
In the most recent ChurchPulse Weekly episode, hosts Carey Nieuwhof and David Kinnaman are joined by Nona Jones (Head of Faith-Based Partnerships at Facebook, author, speaker and co-pastor at Open Door Ministries in Gainesville, Florida). Jones, a previous ChurchPulse Weekly guest, shares ways pastors can increase their digital and social ministry to foster meaningful relationships with their people in this continued age of social distancing.
Half of Churches Are Currently Open with Precautions in Place
As of Barna’s most recent pastor panel survey (July 24-26, 2020), data show that, while a number of U.S. churches are only open for small gathering or meetings (22%) or staff (21%), just over half (52%) are open for normal use, with precautions in place. This week’s data also saw an increase in the amount of church leaders who say they don’t expect to open their building for in-person worship again until sometime next year (12% vs. 5% week 13 and 3% week 12).
Nevertheless, pastors continue to see less engagement online when compared to in-person attendance, with just one in five saying last week’s online participation was higher (8% much higher, 12% slightly higher) than it typically was pre-COVID. Three in 10 (31%) say it was about the same as a typical in-person service, but the remaining half (49%) say there was lower attendance (21% much less, 28% slightly less).
Commenting on these findings, Jones shares her thoughts on how pastors can increase their digital engagement and discipleship outreach through intentional social ministry.
“Social media is a misnomer and is used in many wrong ways,” Jones states. “Social media begins with the word ‘social,’ and yet we use it to essentially communicate a message from us to the masses—that’s broadcast—and it’s really used for marketing and keeping people aware of who we are and what we’re doing. But the ministry side is lacking.”
“The social ministry side is about discipleship and about helping people mature in their faith. … Social ministry is about thinking, ‘How do I help people mature in their faith in the digital space?’ and ‘How do I connect people to each other so that they’re growing together?’” Jones continues. “I think when you adopt that mindset, you begin to look at social technology differently. … It’s going from content to community conversations.”
Half of Pastors Struggle to Figure Out a Hybrid Church Model
Recently, pastors shared about the biggest challenges they’re facing right now as they lead their church through the pandemic. Nearly half say they’re struggling with ministry to kids and youth (47%), maintaining growth and momentum (46%) and figuring out hybrid church (44%). Other areas of concern include personal burnout (35%), discouragement as a leader (34%), getting their church fully reopened and digital discipleship (33% each). A quarter also says that digital evangelism (26%) and responding to needs (24%) pose a challenge.
“Here’s what not to do,” Jones says, responding to pastors’ current challenges. “Don’t feel the pressure to essentially replicate what you do in real life on social [media]. You don’t have to replicate it.”
“Some things I’ve seen work out really well,” she continues, “People who have started to adopt this social ministry model that I’ve been recommending, they’re using things like groups in a really innovative way—I’ve seen Bible study groups integrating with Zoom—so that they’re getting real-time connection with people. I’ve seen really cool conferences and virtual game nights—things I would have never imagined [seeing] in my life. … I’ve even seen people go back to some of the analog ways of communicating, like have group conversations over the telephone. It’s been really inspiring to see.”
Jones adds, “I think people have started to see that the livestream isn’t enough, so during the week they’re using those [social] platforms to connect, to have fun, to challenge and include each other. I’ve seen those go over really well to help build and maintain connections.”
Just One in 10 Pastors Feels Well-Equipped to Lead Their Church Through the Remainder of 2020
Barna data show that when asked how well-equipped church leaders feel to face the challenges ahead for them and their church for the rest of 2020, just one in 10 (11%) says they feel extremely well-equipped. The majority (74%) admits to being somewhat equipped, while 14 percent say they are not too equipped. A lingering 1 percent says they do not feel equipped at all.
When Nieuwhof and Jones discussed the future of churches post-COVID, Jones shared her hope for the Church in an encouragement to pastors everywhere.
“My hypothesis is actually that I think church attendance is going to surge after COVID for a couple of reasons,” Jones explains. “I think COVID has really placed a newfound sense of value on human connection; I think that because people haven’t been able to freely gather, there are many people who would very much so love to gather in a safe environment that provides hope. So I think there’s going to be a surge.”
“Although,” Jones cautions, “I don’t know that it’s going to be sustained unless the church actually innovates to meet that surge where it is. My fear is that people are going to get so excited about all these new faces that they’re going to try to stuff the newness in the old wineskin, and we’re going to see [attendance] drop off … unless the Church is willing to make the changes needed to keep people there.”
About the Research
COVID-19 Data: Barna Group conducted these online surveys among 2,694 Protestant Senior Pastors from March 20–July 26, 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
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