May 5, 2020

COVID-19 Conversations: What Will Be the New Normal for the Church?

For the past seven weeks, Barna has been checking in on the state of U.S. pastors through a national pastor panel, gathering data on how church leaders and their congregations are faring in light of the current pandemic. Each Monday, on the ChurchPulse Weekly podcast, Carey Nieuwhof and David Kinnaman, along with expert guests, discuss the findings from the most recent research, offering insight into the current moment as well as the coming days.

This week, Nieuwhof took some time to chat with pastor, author and culture expert Mark Sayers about what a “new normal” for the Church might look like. Highlights from their conversation are featured below, as well as recent pastor panel data pertaining to the pandemic, how churches are reacting and thoughts on reopening. You can watch the latest broadcast of ChurchPulse Weekly here, or, come Thursday (May 7, 2020), you can listen to the most recent episode wherever you get your podcasts. 

Online Attendance Is Balancing, While Financial Giving Continues to Trend Low
This week (April 28-May 4, 2020), about four in 10 U.S. pastors (42%) report that their online participation during the last week was just about the same as typical (in person) Sunday attendance. Just one in three (33%) says it was lower, while 23 percent said it was higher. After weeks of fluctuation following social distancing requirements, online attendance is finding a balance, a trend we first noted and reported on last week (April 21-27).

Online giving is also starting to even out, with four in 10 pastors (41%) noting that their church’s financial giving in the last week stayed about the same. A similar percentage (42%), however, notes that giving was down (12% significantly, 30% slightly). Sixteen percent say giving was up (13% significantly, 3% slightly). The week prior (April 21-27), just two in five pastors noted that giving had stayed the same or was down (38% each), while a quarter (25%) noted an increase.

“We’re finding ourselves in a profound moment where there’s actually a loss of control,” notes Sayers, commenting on the recent data. “In moments like this, we’ve been reduced to an aspect of leadership that I actually think is biblical, [called] spiritual authority. It’s not positional leadership, it’s not leadership through charisma; it’s actual spiritual authority. In this moment of disruption, I think one of the key invitations [we need to address] is how do we lead with spiritual authority?”

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A Return to Worship Will Not Be Without Safety Precautions
During the first four weeks that Barna surveyed pastors about the pandemic, data showed that a significant portion held out hope of their congregation gathering again sooner rather than later. That trend has shifted in recent weeks, however, as pastors have begun to acknowledge the effects of the crisis and how it will change the way they hold a worship service even after their church has reopened. As of this week, half of pastors (51%) say they believe they can hold a worship service in their usual location in June, though another one in three (33%) is still hopeful for May. Twelve percent think in-person church services won’t take place again until July or August, and another 3 percent have their sights on the fall.

Even in just a week, Barna data show a tremendous shift in what pastors are thinking when it comes to resuming worship services. This week, half of U.S. church leaders (52%) say their church will not meet in person right away after regulations are lifted, but rather will wait until they feel comfortable to do so. Just last week (April 21-27), only 13 percent of pastors felt this way. Accordingly, we saw a decline in the percentage who say their church will begin to meet in person, but with precautions in place (29% vs. 62% last week). Only two percent say worship services will be the same as before social distancing, down from 12 percent who answered the same last week. Still, another 17 percent admit to not having a plan in place yet.

For those who plan to meet again soon with precautions in place, four in five pastors say their church will ask people to stay home if they are sick (83%) and to avoid touching such as handshakes and hugs (80%). Three-quarters (77%) will have people sit farther apart, and six in 10 (60%) will not pass the offering plate. Seventy-five percent of church leaders say they will continue offering an online worship service. All of these steps will be a main part of the transition as the Church emerges into a new normal.

“After we come out of a crisis, there’s a sense in us that wants to go back to normal,” states Sayers. “But God was already preparing a people before this [crisis]. I believe there’s going to be a remnant in the global Church who step into the invitation [of this moment] and come back with a tenacity of faith, a spiritual resilience. … My hope is that when dawn breaks, the Church is actually going to come back stronger.”

Sayers concludes, “My encouragement for leaders at this moment who are feeling frightened, scared or a loss of control is to step into this moment. This is an incredible moment—God wants to do something—so step into it.”

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 Toolkitclick here.

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About the Research
Barna Group conducted this survey online among 1,410 Protestant Senior Pastors from March 20–May 4, 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

Photo by Edwin Andrade 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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