Many churches receive communion or the eucharist each week and, surrounding Easter Sunday and Holy Week, the tradition is even more widely observed across denominations. However, with most U.S. churches closed to the public until at least April 30—and perhaps longer depending on the course of the COVID-19 pandemic—how are pastors incorporating holy sacraments into their services? Specifically, are church leaders offering the physical ritual of communion while social distancing guidelines are in place?
The First Digital Easter
First, let’s look at how churches are thinking about coming together, virtually or physically, in general. Just last week (March 24–30, 2020), over half of U.S. pastors (58%) intended to hold a digital Easter service with 45 percent sharing plans to livestream online and another 13 percent saying they would record an Easter message to send out to congregants. Just one in five (20%) had no plan in place and 10 percent planned to hold an outdoor service. Five percent said they would find another unique way to convene, another 2 percent said they would meet as usual and a remaining 5 percent planned to postpone their Easter celebration for the time being.
As of Holy Week, there is a little more clarity. Seven in 10 pastors (70%) now intend to hold a digital service, with over half (57%) planning to livestream and one in four (25%) recording an Easter message—whether a video or podcast—to send out to congregants. Just 2 percent still have no plan in place and another 9 percent are set on having an outdoor service. Only one percent of pastors say their church plans to meet as usual for Easter service, while the remaining 6 percent say they will find another unique way to convene or postpone their Easter celebration (3% each).
“I think we really are in for the first digital Easter,” says Barna president David Kinnaman. “What an incredible opportunity for the gospel to go forward. I think a lot of ministries are thinking about how to reach out to the unchurched and to people who haven’t put their faith in Christ before, even, and especially, during this crisis.”
Kinnaman concludes, “I think it’s really neat to see the Church rising to the challenge of trying to try to respond to the health crisis of COVID-19 and also continue to talk about the message of Jesus in our times.”
Nearly One-Third of Churches Has Paused Communion During the COVID-19 Crisis
When asked how their church is participating in communion during the current moment, almost a third of U.S. pastors (29%) reports they have “stopped offering communion for the time being.” Another quarter (25%) says, “we don’t typically offer communion every week, so it has not been an issue” and 5 percent say they “haven’t thought about this yet.” Twenty-seven percent say they are “providing helpful information or instructions for people to participate in communion at home with their own elements” while another 5 percent are actually “delivering communion elements to people who would like to participate at home.” Exactly one in 10 (10%) says they are taking other measures in regard to communion during the crisis.
When looking specifically at data from mainline and non-mainline churches, researchers found that only 4 percent of mainline churches said they don’t offer communion weekly as opposed to 26 percent of non-mainline churches. While half of mainline churches (49%) say they have stopped offering communion for the time being, less than a quarter of non-mainline churches (23%) report this. Similar percentages of both denominations are currently providing helpful information or instruction for people to participate in communion at home (34% mainline, 28% non-mainline).
Additionally, when asked to indicate what practices their church was incorporating weekly into online services, 27 percent of all U.S. pastors shared that communion was a weekly practice for their church in the current moment.
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.
About the Research
Barna Group conducted this survey online among 407 Protestant Senior Pastors from March 21–April 6, 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
Mainline refers to denominations such as American Baptist Churches USA, the Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, United Church of Christ, United Methodist Church and Presbyterian Church USA.
Non-mainline refers to denominations such as charismatic / Pentecostal churches, the Southern Baptist Convention, churches in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition and non-denominational churches.
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