May 13, 2020

Five Things We’ve Learned During the COVID-19 Crisis

In a time of isolation and unprecedented change, the well-being of pastors and their people has been at the forefront of Barna’s research.

Just before COVID-19 disruptions were felt, as part of Barna’s State of the Church project, our research team was investing in analyzing human flourishing through five different lenses: relationships, finances, health, vocation and spirituality. Together, with our technology partner Gloo, we’ve come up with new ways for pastors to connect with their congregations, offering assessments to measure what matters in the lives of the people they lead. In the past couple months, Barna and Gloo have pivoted to also serve church leaders by offering the ChurchPulse Weekly Crisis Toolkit which features simple surveys that pastors can send out to community leaders and congregants to check in with their people during a time of social distancing.

We now find ourselves equipped with extensive data on what it has looked like as American churches have weathered the pandemic, and in this article, we’ll take a look at some trends that have emerged from these surveys. These research findings and many more will be discussed even further at Barna’s webcast on May 20 at 1pm ET. Caring for Souls in a New Reality is a free online event for church leaders and their teams to join and learn more about the current State of the Church as we navigate COVID-19 and beyond. Register now to save your spot for the webcast.

1. Despite Disruptions, Leaders Are Doing Well and (Mostly) Feel Equipped to Help People
As COVID-19 has impacted the daily routines and roles of pastors in many ways, are leaders finding time for their own spiritual development? Fifty-one percent report it has been easy (23% very, 28% somewhat), while another 49 percent have found it difficult (10% very, 39% somewhat) to prioritize this time.

When it comes to their people’s burdens, how ready are church leaders to help their congregants through their present mental and emotional troubles? Only three in 10 pastors (30%) say they feel “very well-equipped,” though the majority (64%) notes they feel “somewhat equipped,” with a remaining 6 percent responding they are “not well-equipped.” Additionally, two in five pastors (39%) reports that they or another staff member of their church have preached on the topic of mental or emotional health within the last month. Read this blog post to learn more about how leaders can keep tabs on their relational, emotional and mental health

The State of Your Church

Measuring What Matters in Ministry

2. Online Attendance Has Increased as a Result of COVID-19—But What Does that Mean?
Compared to typical in-person attendance, streamed Sunday services have seen an uptick in participation during social distancing, according to pastors’ self-reports. During the second week of Barna’s weekly pastor survey (March 24-30, 2020) nearly half (45%) of pastors said online participation was higher than in-person service attendance. One in three (33%) said it was less and only 6 percent said it was about the same.

Since the week of April 21-27, 2020, this trend has been leveling out, though attendance is still skewing higher than typical physical gatherings. Currently, about one in three church leaders says attendance is higher (35%), about the same (29%) or less than normal (32%).

mental health

Of those who are offering services online, how are churches measuring the effect of online worship services? Barna asked this of pastors during the fifth week of check ins, April 14-20, 2020. Nearly half of U.S. pastors (48%) said they were looking at the number of views—66 percent of these are using a multiplier to help gauge attendance, while 23 percent are not—and another 13 percent gauged engagement by the number of people who watch the full service. One in 10 (12%) relied on feedback from congregants, while some based their metric on comment activity (9%). Some see simply offering an online service in general (8%) as success.

3. Virtual Giving Has Lagged Behind Other Forms of Engagement
Church giving has been heavily impacted during the COVID-19 response, a pattern that could be attributed to both the shift from in-person to digital offering options and the present economic challenges facing businesses and individuals. During the first few weeks of the pandemic, church leaders reported lower than usual numbers when it came to weekly offerings (62% week 1, 79% week 2, 64% week 3). Within the last month however, this trend has plateaued. The most recent data collected this past week show more than one-third of pastors (37%) reports lower giving. Thirty-eight percent say giving has remained the same and one-quarter (25%) confirms an increase in weekly giving.

mental health

4. Many Congregations Offer Community Support Amid Crisis, But Some Have Yet to Organize
Over the last two months, church leaders and their people have continued to serve their community, primarily by helping distribute food and supplies and reaching out to elderly, isolated or at-risk community members. This trend has remained fairly steady since COVID-19 disruptions began, with 33 percent of pastors currently reporting that their church is distributing food and supplies (vs. 20% week 1) and another one in five (19%) saying their congregants are reaching out to elderly, isolated or at-risk community members (vs. 40% week 1).

Still, a quarter of pastors (25%) admit their churches do not have an official / organized response at this time, months since the pandemic reached the States.

The State of Your Church

Measuring What Matters in Ministry

5. Pastors Still Express Hope for Their Churches’ Future
Despite the myriad challenges COVID-19 has presented to our society, overall, the majority of pastors (95%) is fairly certain that their churches will survive the pandemic (67% very confident, 28% confident). Just 4 percent are unsure and one percent is not very confident about their church’s survival rate.

Current data show that half of pastors (51%) expect to be physically hosting worship services in their usual location by June. Another three in 10 (30%) are hopeful about May, an expectation that is becoming reality in a number of counties as states begin the process of reopening. Still, 17 percent of pastors believe their congregations won’t begin to physically gather together again until July or August.

These are some of the things we now know about the present well-being of churches in the U.S., according to the pastors who lead them—but there is much we don’t know yet. How will the online methods of worship and liturgy continue to evolve? When will the finances of both organizations and individuals recover? What will be the mental and emotional toll on leaders and churchgoers who have faced loneliness, anxiety and grief? Should congregations plan to approach additional periods of social distancing as the world continues to fight the disease? How can churches best partner to help the vulnerable in this time?

Caring for Souls in a New Reality, our State of the Church webcast taking place on May 20 at 1pm ET, will dig deeper into the knowns and unknowns the Church must navigate at the start of this new and complex decade. During this free event, Barna researchers and expert guests will present findings related to human flourishing, organizational thriving and effective leadership, primarily focusing on three things church leaders can do as they care for the souls entrusted to their leadership:

  • Reset: What culture and faith trends have emerged as a result of the pandemic?
  • Refocus: How can we leverage the digital landscape to make resilient disciples?
  • Restore: How is God forming us to be more humble, resilient and dependent on him?

About the Research

COVID-19 Data: Barna Group conducted this survey online among 1,575 Protestant Senior Pastors from March 20–May 11, 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

Restoring Relationships Data: The research from this study includes a total of 2,307 online interviews with U.S. adults ages 18 and older, including 1,003 interviews with all adults in the general population and an additional 1,304 interviews with practicing Christians. Combined with the number of adults who qualified among the general population (n=219), the total number of interviews among practicing Christians is 1,523.

In order to qualify as a practicing Christian, respondents had to identify as Christian, agree strongly that their faith is very important in their life today and report attending a Christian church service at least once in the past month. The margin of error among the general population sample (n=1,003) is ±2.9 percentage points at the 95-percent confidence level. The margin of error among the practicing Christian sample (n=1,523) is ±2.3 percentage points at the 95-percent confidence level.

Interviews were conducted between March 27 to May 3, 2019. Respondents were invited from a randomly selected group of people matching the demographics of the U.S. population for maximum representation. Researchers set quotas to obtain a minimum readable sample by a variety of demographic factors and then minimally weighted the data by ethnicity, education and gender to reflect their natural presence in the known population, using U.S. Census Bureau data for comparison.

The research also includes 656 interviews among U.S. clergy, including 604 interviews with Protestant senior pastors and 52 with Catholic priests. Interviews were conducted between March 19 and April 26, 2019. These pastors were recruited from Barna’s pastor panel (a database of pastors recruited via probability sampling on annual phone and email surveys) and are representative of U.S. Protestant and Catholic churches by region, denomination and church size. The margin of error among pastors is ±3.7 percentage points at the 95-percent confidence level.

© 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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