As the United States begins to lift COVID-related restrictions on gatherings, one phase at a time, church leaders are facing a new challenge which poses many questions: First, should we reopen, and if so, how? While an ease of social distancing guidelines in certain areas allows congregants to once again gather for worship in their usual church building, are people ready to come back for Sunday services?
In the most recent episode of ChurchPulse Weekly, hosts Carey Nieuwhof and David Kinnaman sat down with Adam Weber and Glenn Packiam, two pastors whose churches have resumed in-person worship services, to talk about the good, the bad and the uncertain of this season in ministry. You can watch the latest broadcast of ChurchPulse Weekly here or listen to the most recent episode wherever you get your podcasts.
One in seven churches has already reopened, and another two in five hope to follow suit in June
Just a few weeks ago (May 5-11, 2020), three in 10 pastors hoped to welcome congregants back into their usual church locations for in-person worship by the end of May. Recent data from Barna’s weekly Protestant pastor panel survey (May 19-June 1, 2020) show that one in seven pastors (14%) did in fact reopen in the month May, with another two in five (40%) expecting to reopen this month in June.
A quarter of church leaders (24%) says they expect to welcome members back in summer—July or August—while another 6 percent are holding out for later in the year.
“I think that’s an interesting stat as, up until recently, we’ve had a virtually unanimous closing of churches,” notes Kinnaman. “Just about a month ago, we started to see the perceptions of pastors who were coming to terms with the fact that church may be online for a long time—but I think now there’s a little glimmer of hope for church leaders.”
A third of pastors says their own church leadership is most influential in decisions to reopen
In a recent weekly checkin, data indicated that pastors are conflicted when it comes to leading their churches in compliance of COVID-19 guidelines as outlined by federal and local government. This also seems to be true when it comes to deciding to reopen their church doors.
Pastors are once again divided, with one in three stating that regional or state policy-makers (34%) or their own church leadership (33%) has been the most influential in their decisions as their church considers plans for re-entry to worship services. The remaining responses are distributed, with one in 10 looking to denominational leaders (11%) or local policy-makers (9%) and smaller percentages taking cues from national or federal policy-makers (4%), their congregation (4%) or other churches (3%).
When it comes to their church’s plan for returning to in-person worship services, the majority of pastors (86%) is confident (21% extremely, 40% very, 25% somewhat) in their re-entry plan. Only 6 percent are not confident (5% not very, 1% not at all), with another 7 percent noting they do not yet have a plan in place.
ChurchPulse Weekly guest Dr. Glenn Packiam, lead pastor of New Life Church’s downtown congregation in Colorado Springs, Colorado, shares what steps were taken in advance of his campus reopening.
“For us, it was always about how we could love our community well,” begins Dr. Packiam. “We formed a work committee with a couple of pastors and a couple of public health officials from the county to draft a proposal [for our county commissioners]… We explored a dozen or so different [questions and scenarios] and the public health officials were so inspired by the creativity and proactiveness of church leaders and pastors that they took it and ran with it.”
“The internal-facing edge of our decision showed up after we’d called all the households in our church,” continues Dr. Packiam. “We checked in on people and discovered that most people were doing okay, but those who were hurting were really hurting and were aching to be together with the church. … [A church-wide survey we conducted] also showed that 70-75 percent of people were ready to come back.”
Dr. Packiam concludes, “We knew we had the support of our people, we knew we had the wisdom of our community and county, so once the variance proposal got approved, we had everything in place—communications, graphics, videos all ready to go—and we [reopened] that weekend.”
Half of pastors believe their church will be healthier following the pandemic
Overall, pastors have remained optimistic despite the disruptions faith communities have faced over recent months. Though online attendance shows no significant increase in the last few weeks and financial giving is still trending low, most church leaders are certain their churches will survive the current crisis.
Recent data (May 19-June 1, 2020) show that half of pastors (48%) believe their church will be stronger (10% definitely, 38% likely) once social distancing guidelines are no longer in place and their congregation is able to meet in-person once again. One in three (35%) says their church’s health will hold steady, and 14 percent believe their church will be less strong. Three percent are unsure.
When it comes to how long it will take for churches to regain their health once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, one in three pastors (34%) says it will happen almost immediately, within a month or less. One in five believes this could take 2-3 months (21%) or several months (19%). While another one in 10 (13%) says it could take six months or longer, 11 percent are admit being unsure how long it would take for their church to regain its pre-COVID strength.
Adam Weber, founder and lead pastor of Embrace, a multisite church based out of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, shares his thoughts on why some congregants aren’t quite ready to jump back into church.
“I think, with the virus, you’re going to get the spectrum of ‘we should have never closed’ or ‘we shouldn’t have reopened for a long time,’ but I think the biggest thing is being out of routine,” says Weber. “I think people are really wrestling with [and asking] ‘how important is the Church? I haven’t had it for the last 10 weeks, so do I really need it?’ And I think coming into summer really sets that in even more.”
“I think people will come and will push past barriers if it’s really important to them,” concludes Weber, “so we just need to ask the question, ‘Is church really that important to our people?’”
Caring for Souls in a New Reality, Barna’s State of the Church webcast which took place on May 20, drilled deeper into the knowns and unknowns the Church must navigate at the start of this new and complex decade. Barna researchers and expert guests primarily focused on three things church leaders can do right now 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?
If you missed the webcast, want to watch certain clips or hope to share it with someone else, visit Barna Access—our new digital subscription service—to view the replay for a limited time. Barna Access is also home to our ChurchPulse tools, which can be viewed and utilized with a free membership.
About the Research
COVID-19 Data: Barna Group conducted these online surveys among 1,950 Protestant Senior Pastors from March 20–May 18, 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
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