Do Americans Replace Traditional Church with Digital Faith Expressions?


Articles State of the Church 2020 in State of the Church 2020 • March 12, 2020

As part of our latest study, the State of the Church 2020 project, we set out to learn how practicing Christians—a group already notably committed to their faith and to attending churches—describe the presence of technology in their faith formation, from weekly sermons to weekday drives.

Barna has been looking at the impact of technological advances for some time. (To read more about Barna’s exploration of the digital age, check out this post.) Overall, we see that the influence of recent digital trends on churchgoers is undeniable, though perhaps not as extreme as you’d expect. Further, there appears to be great opportunity to thoughtfully use digital tools toward the goal of spiritual growth.

The Video Sermon Fad Isn’t a Trend Just Yet
In recent decades, there has been increased interest in livestream or satellite services, in which congregations, typically at mega- or multi-site church campuses, rely upon a video feed or in some cases even a hologram to hear from a speaker. But while the buzz around these technologically advanced sermons has grown, that might not be true of their usage. New Barna data suggest these services are still a novelty. Very few—just 2 percent of practicing Christians—say they attend a church that uses a video or livestream sermon, with the large majority (97%) still sitting under the teaching of a live, in-person preacher. Though respondents in larger churches (200+ attendees) are more likely than those in smaller churches to report receiving virtual sermons, the group of attendees is still too small overall to be reported on with any statistically significant detail.

worship shifting

Millennials Use Devices More at Church—But Are They More Distracted?
If technology hasn’t exactly transformed the way sermons are delivered, it has at least had an effect on what congregants regularly do during sermons.

For the most part, practicing Christians (75%) report to be listening closely to a speaker, and physical Bibles are still a fairly common accessory (36%), as opposed to, or perhaps alongside, digital Bibles (15%). One in four practicing Christians (25%) is further invested in gleaning from a sermon by taking notes. Even so, 17 percent admit to getting distracted, a percentage which might overlap with those who say they fact check a pastor’s message (10%) or browse texts, emails or social media on their phone (7%).

The increased presence of devices during sermons becomes more obvious when we look at respondents by age group. It might not come as a surprise that Millennials are the most likely generation of practicing Christians to report that screens are part of their church worship experience, whether because they are using a digital Bible or other personal or social apps.

worship shifting

Boomers are more likely than Gen X and Millennials to say they are listening carefully—yet all generations are just as likely to report being distracted during a service. It’s possible that, for more device-dependent younger generations, having a smartphone or tablet on hand during church simply feels normal, another opportunity to either aid or diminish their engagement with a sermon. In the same way, for an older Christian, a spiralbound notebook might become a sermon staple for writing down notes or just doodling in the margins—and, in fact, Boomers are less likely than younger generations to be taking notes during a service.

Sermon diversions appear to be personal unique to the individual or due to environmental factors, not just technological. Regardless of their age, practicing Christians seem to approach sermons with the aim of listening intently and avoiding the distractions. Still, nearly one in five acknowledges distraction gets the better of them.

The Digitization & Distribution of Sunday Morning
Diversions during worship are certainly a factor that church leaders’ must grapple with, however, the greatest competition for a churchgoer’s attention may come from outside church services. The term “time shifting” was first coined to refer to when people began recording media, primarily from television, to be enjoyed later. That initial shift away from live, communal consumption has become a seemingly unstoppable movement thanks to streaming services. And, now, the Church faces a similar transition when it comes to teaching and discipleship—let’s call it “worship shifting.”

Barna asked respondents how often they interact with a variety of Christian or spiritual resources, whether through traditional media, such as radio and books, or digital options such as podcasts and social media. Overall, responses suggest that formats for spiritual formation are many and well used. Radio remains the most prevalent—nearly half (46%) of practicing Christians uses it weekly for music, and one-third (33%) uses it weekly for teachings. Faith-based books are also a part of the weekly routine for nearly two in five practicing Christians (39%).

Social media that helps one grow in their faith (38%) is on par with Christian books as a weekly catalyst for spiritual growth, perhaps because of its accessibility. About another one in four practicing Christians noted receiving a sermon outside of a service each week, generally via podcast (26%) or specifically through options from their own church (26%).

This distribution of Christian content across mediums as well as people’s schedules could be something to celebrate, a sign of both the ingenuity and ubiquity of Christian teachings. But church leaders might be surprised to know just how often these resources are relied upon as a substitute for in-person engagement with a place of worship. Half of all practicing Christians who engage with faith-related resources say that, at least occasionally, they “rely on Christian resources such as these instead of attending a church” (13% often, 9% half the time, 27% occasionally).

Among Millennials, these percentages climb; one in three (34%) tells Barna they “often” replace church attendance with other forms of Christian content. Keep in mind, these percentages are among practicing Christians, a group who attends church at least monthly, meaning they still manage to be a regular presence in the pews even as they substitute services with other resources.

Barna also zoomed out to look at all churched adults—those who have been to church at least once in the last six months—to learn about the place of faith-based media among a broader segment of churchgoers. Here we see an interesting intersection of those with lesser commitment to attendance but great interest in spiritual content. One in three churchgoers who substitute church engagement with other resources at least half the time (27% churched) says they are in a position of just beginning to explore how to grow spiritually. It’s possible these Christians aren’t replacing in-person services simply because they hold a low value of church but because they place a high value on any spiritual instruction.

We see a broad (or sometimes split) focus even when churchgoers are present during a sermon: These churchgoers are more likely to be taking notes or following along in a Bible (digital or physical), as well as more likely to be distracted or scrolling on their phone. Demographically, they represent more Millennials, urbanites, Democrats, ethnic minorities, singles—statistically, groups outside of the majority experience of American Christianity.

Whether they disengage from a faith community in favor of other venues and mediums or have felt sidelined by Church, these are people who appear to be passionate about spiritual formation and looking to be compelled in their faith. They have strong emotional reactions, positive or negative, following their church service experiences, and maintain a healthy skepticism about church’s relevance, at large or locally. These are Christians who, often by their own accounts, are seeking to deepen their spirituality but perhaps welcome that influence from a pool of resources rather than a specific church relationship.

What the Research Means
David Kinnaman, president of Barna, suggested that these trends provide a window into the future of faith practice. “Christian Millennials are more likely than older generations of Christians to report using digital tools to grow spiritually—such as listening to a sermon via podcast—even describing these kinds of things as a substitute for church attendance.”

“While that may read as a red flag to many ministry leaders, it’s helpful to be reminded of the context for the numbers. The data in this article primarily represent practicing Christians, those who agree strongly that faith is very important in their lives and have attended church at least once in the past month. So, even if nearly half of Millennials substitute digital and other kinds of media resources for church attendance, they are still finding time to gather with a larger body of believers at least once a month.”

Kinnaman continued, “Instead of sounding an alarm bell for pastors, these numbers should indicate an opportunity as well. Young people, especially, are fully immersed in this new, technologically driven age that we call ‘digital Babylon.’ While screen time, apps and global connectivity are advances that older generations had to learn and adapt to, young adults have been raised knowing little else. It’s to be expected that as technology transforms society, impacting even the simplest of daily activities, younger generations will find new ways to harness these tools—including for spiritual growth, faith sharing and church engagement.”

“As they do so, church leaders can respond by providing thoughtful integration of digital tools, strategies and content into their spiritual development efforts. That would include where digital tools can and should be used, and where they shouldn’t. Ultimately, millions of practicing Christians—and especially younger Christians—are telling us they are comfortable with these transitions, whether church leaders are or not.”

The impact of digital trends on the Church is just one of the many topics we have been studying in our year-long State of the Church 2020 project, Barna’s most comprehensive study on cultural and spiritual trends. Join us for the free launch webcast on April 28, during which Barna will reveal new metrics on measuring how people flourish and churches thrive.

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

About the Research
The statistics and data-based analyses in this study are derived from a national public opinion survey conducted by Barna among 1,606 U.S. adults, including 794 practicing Christian adults. Responses were collected online between December 5-18, 2019, using a nationally representative panel. The rate of error for this data is +/- 2.2% at the 95% confidence level.

Churched adults have been to church in the last six months.
Practicing Christians
 identify as Christian, agree strongly that faith is very important in their lives and have attended church within the past month.

Gen Z: Born between 1999 and 2015
Millennial: Born between 1984 and 1998
Gen X: Born between 1965 and 1983
Boomer: Born between 1946 and 1964
Elder: Born before 1946

Photo by Aaron Burden 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

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