Aug 4, 2020

COVID-19 Conversations: Jon Tyson on the Tensions of Online Ministry


As summer comes to a close, the pandemic continues to grip the United States, forcing pastors to consider what it means to lead online or hybrid church services into the fall of 2020. In this week’s episode of Church Pulse Weekly, Jon Tyson, author and lead pastor of Church of the City in New York, joins podcast hosts Carey Nieuwhof and David Kinnaman to comment on real-time data about the tensions pastor feel when it comes to leading in the current moment.

Pastors Are Struggling in Various Aspects of Ministry, from Kids Programs to Digital Strategies
Just last week, Barna data show that nearly half of pastors are struggling to effectively minister to kids and youth (47%) and to figure out a hybrid church model (44%). Another 46 percent identify challenges to maintaining the growth and momentum of their church, while just over one in three (35%) is facing personal burnout.

“I definitely resonate with those stats,” Tyson comments. “I’ve felt all of those things. I’ve felt the tension of ministering to families and kids, children and families—I’ve had some dark days. I am almost pure optimist—I’m very hard to get down and resiliency is one of my top strengths. But, I think the thing that’s been the hardest for me is that I just didn’t sign up for online ministry.”

“If I had,” Tyson continues, “I would have had the theological and philosophical framework to be able to do this. So I think a lot of people are being forced into positions where they either have theological reservation or a lack of practical skill. They’re being forced to operate out of a weakness and against their preferences and convictions. And that gets draining.”

Tyson concludes, “The typical pastor in America is not trying to be an online pastor with a large presence and a personal brand—they’re just trying to love their people. They’re thinking about pastoring through presence, being in the room and seeing people’s faces. [Pastors] have a desire to be present with [their] people. [They] have a shepherding gift and [they] want that to resume.”

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Nearly Nine in 10 Pastors Believe the Pandemic will Disrupt Fall Outreach Efforts
As church leaders continue to bear heavy loads as they and their staff go the extra mile to meet congregants needs, many are also weighed down by the reality that COVID-19 and social distancing guidelines will disrupt any fall evangelism efforts. One in three (35%) believes their outreach efforts will be very disrupted, while another half (53%) say this will be somewhat the case. Only 7 percent say their church’s evangelism efforts won’t be too disrupted, and 3 percent believe this won’t happen at all.

While most pastors acknowledge the state of disruption in terms of evangelism and outreach, Tyson sees this moment as an opportunity for believers to live out their faith by loving their neighbors and their communities.

“In terms of [Sunday] services,” Tyson begins, “there is 100 percent disruption—we have no agency whatsoever. But in terms of people loving their neighbors, serving their neighbors, I think [we’re at] an advantage. [People] are forced to do mission and focus on outreach in ways they perhaps wouldn’t have before. Before, they would have relied on [Sunday] gatherings, so I’m very optimistic about outreach thriving amongst groups.”

One in Five Pastors Thinks Their People’s Faith Will Diminish During the Crisis
In the week’s following the nation’s initial response to COVID-19, Barna data showed that pastors were not overly concerned about their congregants’ personal faith journey decreasing during the crisis; by week four (April 7-13, 2020) of the pastor panel survey, only 4 percent of pastors thought this would happen, while half (52%) said it would remain the same and 44 percent said it would increase.

As the months have dragged on, however, pastors’ hope has begun to wane. Now, the most recent data (July 24-26, 2020) show that one in five (18%) say their congregants’ personal faith may decline amid the crisis. While over half (56%) still believe people’s faith won’t waver, only a quarter (27%) believes it will increase.

Tyson challenges pastors to reframe how they perceive their congregants’ personal faith journeys in this time. “There’s a deep, I think, theological reexamination that’s happening [right now]. It’s very hard to maintain that James 1 perspective: ‘Consider it pure joy’ [in this moment].  A lot of people are probably angry at God, disillusioned. A lot of people have lost their jobs or have had deep relation of conflict—it feels like an assault from every direction. Every category of life is being threatened or impacted in some way.”

“The only thing I would say,” Tyson concludes,” is that struggling with God is not a sign of losing faith. It’s a sign of deepening faith. … Wrestling with God is a gift and leads to further maturity. I think with skillful leadership, this can be a sign of growth, but it is hard work to continually revisit that week after week and live through it.”

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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

Featured image by Nycholas Benaia on Unsplash.

About Barna
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

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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