Mar 31, 2020

U.S. Churches Close to the Public: Staff & Congregants Take New Approaches to Work & Community


On Sunday, President Trump announced an extension of nationwide social distancing to April 30. With these federal guidelines in place, many pastors, some of whom were hopeful to be back in their church buildings before the end of April, are now faced with the new reality of not seeing their congregants face-to-face until the month of May, at least.

[barna-ad offset=0]

This article explores how church leaders and their congregants are adapting to the closure of their physical spaces of worship and the innovative ideas blossoming around community and connectivity as a result of our new reality, social distancing.

For more information or to hear expert commentary on the data below, tune in to ChurchPulse Weekly, a new podcast hosted by Carey Nieuwhof and David Kinnaman who, each Monday, are joined by guests and experts to make sense of the data and share valuable insights and direction for the current moment and coming days. You can watch the most recent episode here or check your favorite podcast app for a new episode every Thursday.

Overall, Church Buildings Are Closed for the Time Being
Given nationwide calls for mass-scale social distancing, a vast majority of pastors (73%) reports that their church facilities are not currently open to the public—58 percent say their building is open for staff only, while the other 15 percent report facilities being closed to staff as well. A small percentage (3%) notes their facilities remain open for normal use, with some precautions in place. A little over one in 10 (13%) is open for small gatherings or meetings only. Eleven percent of pastors notes their church is open to provide crisis services to the community.

When asked, “As of today, when do you think you’ll be able to host church services again in your usual building / location(s),” exactly four in 10 church leaders believe their churches will reopen in April (40%). Just over one-third (39%) are looking toward May, while some expect they won’t be back to ministry as usual until summer (12% June, 5% July–August).

It’s important to note that the data shown above was collected before Sunday, March 29, 2020, when President Trump extended nationwide social distancing guidelines to April 30.

Church Staff Are Taking Varied Approaches to Their Workspace
When asked what work would look like for their staff in the next week, overall, nearly half of pastors (49%) indicate they and their team are still operating out of the church building. Twenty-two percent of pastors say their staff are going to the church or office as usual, with another 27 percent saying they are adapting their workplace to practice social distancing and other protective measures. One in three church leaders (32%) notes that church staff will work remotely for the indefinite future and another 18 percent says the staff are making their own workspace choices.

While worries of job loss have swept the nation, data show that in the past two weeks, over seven in 10 pastors (73%) have not made staff changes. One in five (20%) says they’ve already reduced staff hours, and two percent report going as far as reducing staff compensation and / or letting staff go (1% each). Two percent of pastors have actually still been able to add staff to their team within the last week.

Nearly One-Third of Small Groups and Bible Studies Continues to Meet Digitally
In the data collected between March 20-23, discussed during the first episode of ChurchPulse Weekly, pastors noted ministry changes as a result of COVID-19 were primarily felt in small groups / Bible studies (82%).

This week, church leaders report that while 38 percent of these groups “have stopped meeting,” over half (53%) are using digital tools to stay connected, with 22 percent “using social media or group chat to stay in touch” and about one in in three (31%) “meeting in real time using video or conference calls.” Other groups “are meeting outdoors or practicing social distancing when together” or “continue to meet in person as usual” (2% each) while 4 percent of pastors say they are not sure what is happening with these gatherings.

Kinnaman notes, “One of the really encouraging parts of this data is seeing the innovation of churches starting to deepen. For example, we found that small group participation has doubled in terms of using social media as an outlet and churches are not just responding tactically on how to do digital worship, but more importantly, focusing on delivering a message of hope and faith during this time.”

Pastors Continue to Report an Increase in (Virtual) Attendance
Last week, one-third of church leaders (32%) said they don’t stream church services online. This week, the data show a significant increase in the number of churches streaming online, with just 7 percent of pastors responding they still do not stream their church service.

“Up until now, church has really been deemed as a model that requires a date, a time and a location,” says Nona Jones, head of faith-based partnerships at Facebook and pastor, along with her husband Tim, at Open Door Ministries in Gainesville, Florida. “Now we’re seeing that technology allows us to actually minister to people 168 hours a week. I’m excited about what the opportunities are here.”

“I think sometimes we think we’re discipling people if they are coming in the building on the weekend and watching a sermon, when in fact, discipleship is really the relational maturation of faith,” Jones continues. “You have to be in community with people. I think this present situation has allowed us to realize that just because we have physical distancing guidelines doesn’t mean that we have to truly socially distance. There are platforms where we can still connect.”

Over Three-Quarters of Church Leaders Report Giving Is Down
Data show that the number of pastors reporting a decrease in giving has risen from 62 percent to 79 percent in the past week. Barna’s first weekly pastor poll showed that while many pastors reported an increase in virtual attendance, over half reported that giving was down (25% slightly, 37% significantly). Last week, just over one in three pastors (35%) stated that giving rates “stayed about the same,” and only two percent noted some level of increase.

When asked about their primary strategy to encourage financial generosity to their church this week, nearly two in five pastors (38%) note a plan to “direct people to our existing online giving.” Another one in five (19%) say they would “highlight options for check and cash donations,” while 15 percent say they would “implement online giving for the first time.” Other responses include speaking more often about generosity during the service (3%), modeling generosity as a church community (3%), highlighting an existing text-to-give process (2%) and implementing text-to-give for the first time (1%). Fourteen percent of pastors say they “did not specifically strategize about generosity this week.”

“Four out of five pastors say that giving is lower, and half say it was down significantly,” explains Kinnaman. “I think the financial impact of this crisis is really starting to set in as households begin to think about tightening their budgets, their discretionary money and how they donate to a church.”

Church Leaders Report Being Most Informed And Supported by Their Denomination
This week, exactly one in four church leaders (25%) says that their denomination is providing them with the most help in terms of information, tools and resources to deal with the crisis, a notable shift from the week prior when pastors said members of the state and / or local government were providing more help than their denomination (24% vs. 20% ). This change may suggest that denominations have assessed their church leaders’ needs and are stepping up to fill the gap now that they’ve had time to offer a formal response or action plan.

In an effort to help serve the Church during this time of unprecedented disruption and as a continued part of our research into the State of the Church 2020, Barna and Gloo have created the ChurchPulse Weekly Crisis Toolkit, a free resource that includes three ways to help pastors see clearly and lead effectively in this time of uncertainty. To learn more about the Crisis Toolkit, click here.

Comment on this article and follow our work:
Twitter: @davidkinnaman | @barnagroup
Facebook: Barna Group

About the Research
Barna Group conducted this survey online among 434 Protestant Senior Pastors from March 20–March 30. 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. Within the article, mentions of “last week” refer to the data from week one, which represents 222 pastors and was collected from March 20-23. Mentions of “this week” refer to the data from week two, which represents 212 pastors and was collected from March 23-30. Mentions of “overall” represent the aggregate responses of all 434 pastors surveyed over the last two weeks.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez 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.

Get Barna in your inbox

Subscribe to Barna’s free newsletters for the latest data and insights to navigate today’s most complex issues.