Looking ahead: Uncertain digital and physical realities of churches

Just over a month ago, as part of our State of the Church project, Barna revealed evidence of what we were calling “worship shifting,” the tendency to rely on digital spiritual tools (such as podcasts, streamed sermons, radio, etc.) instead of attending a church service at a set time and in person.

We shared new data showing 22 percent of all practicing Christians and 52 percent of practicing Christian Millennials report that they replace traditional church in this way regularly – at least half the time.

How quickly the lens through which we view these findings has changed; as social distancing has gone into effect to quell the spread of COVID-19, digital disruption has affected faith communities on an unprecedented scale.

Barna quickly pivoted from fact-gathering for the State of the Church study to weekly national surveys of pastors (as well as responses from those participating in the ChurchPulse Weekly check-ins). These have pointed to the reality that this forced transition away from physical worship spaces was not one many ministries were completely ready for: a quarter of U.S. pastors surveyed during March 20-23, shortly after social distancing began, said their greatest priority for their church was putting in place technology solutions for streaming services and / or online giving.

In data collected April 7-13, we found that nearly half of pastors don’t expect to be back in their buildings until May, with another 35 percent holding out hope for June. And 43 percent assume the circumstances surrounding the pandemic could still worsen, a harsh reality that adds even more unease to the current mental and emotional health of both pastors and their congregants.

Over the years, Barna has had several opportunities to research practicalities and perceptions of where American Christians come together. In this article, we’ll summarize how we’ve built an understanding of church buildings and look toward the future of worship spaces.

New and old-fashioned: Where millennials want to worship

In Making Space for Millennials, based on a study conducted in partnership with Cornerstone Knowledge Network, we discovered that young adults – a group whose relationship to institutional Church is already tenuous – preferred what could be seen as a historic standard for churches: communal rather than private (78 percent vs. 22 percent), sanctuaries rather than auditoriums (77 percent vs. 23 percent), classic rather than trendy (67 percent vs. 33 percent). Yet, they described their “ideal” church as casual (64 percent), relaxed (60 percent) and modern (60 percent), not so much traditional (40 percent).

“And herein lies a cognitive dissonance common to survey participants,” we reported. “Many of them seem to aspire to a more traditional church experience, in a beautiful building steeped in history and religious symbolism, but they are more at ease in a modern space that feels more familiar than mysterious.”

Overall, nearly half of Millennials at that time in 2013 (47 percent) said it was at least somewhat important that a church building look like a church, and they were more attracted to images from churches that had clear iconography and objects connecting them to religious history and expression. Additionally, buildings with some integration or interaction with natural elements – large windows, indoor greenery, courtyards and so on – were highly appealing to younger adults.

When congregations grow: Multisite and church planting

Many churches, especially in certain evangelical congregations, have been driven toward strategic and exponential growth, either through multisite (multiple campuses that are part of a single church) or church-plant models (separate churches intended to operate independently at some point). Sometimes churches might also be “co-located,” meaning they share a space with another congregation or group.

Also in partnership with Cornerstone Knowledge Network, Barna conducted a specialized 2016 study of churches that have launched new congregations. Leaders in these often well-established churches usually reported being driven by a sense of calling to fulfill a mission or to be more effective in their city or region. Typically, this seems to work; respondents in these churches pointed to numerical and spiritual growth, including more unchurched people joining (39 percent).

Still, the physical context matters, and much thought, and worry, is given to the facilities to which they expand. Among even the churches with several locations or plants, about one in five leaders said finding new locations was more expensive and more difficult than they’d expected. Faced with the trade-off between location and size of space, respondents indicated that location (60 percent) – ideally a permanent rather than temporary one (70 percent) – was significantly more important.

So, what are the main focuses of selecting or building a multisite or church plant campus? Children’s (and, to a lesser degree, youth) ministry areas were a top priority for all types of expanding churches. Audio/visual capabilities and lighting were also an important investment, especially for multisite churches, some of which rely on broadcasts or videos to deliver sermons or other community information. Four out of 10 multisite churches surveyed prioritized these technical aspects, with slightly fewer church plants selecting this option.

Complementing what Barna has observed among the church building preferences of Millennials, many pastors of individual campuses (39 percent) noted that moving to a traditional church building helped them gain credibility in a new community.

When congregations disperse: The physical challenges now facing churches

Well before COVID-19 reached pandemic levels and introduced risk for religious gatherings, physical worship spaces have been facing other challenges. Some pastors find themselves either fighting off developers aiming to convert dying churches into high-priced residences, or fighting against lagging attendance numbers that can’t sustain the financial needs of their house of worship.

As author Jonathan Merritt noted in an article for The Atlantic, “The cost of maintaining large physical structures that are in use only a few hours a week by a handful of worshippers becomes prohibitive. None of these trends show signs of slowing, so the United States’ struggling congregations face a choice: Start packing, or find a creative way to stay afloat.”

Certainly, many churches are still rising to the challenge of innovation. Marian Liautaud of Aspen Group recently wrote for Christianity Today about trends that could shape the future of churches, from strategies driven by big data and heightened security concerns to the popularity of communal, multi-use buildings and outdoor gathering spaces. And we can’t ignore the number of churchgoers who are opting for more intimate gatherings; in the past three years, one in three churched adults (34 percent) says they have attended a worship service in someone’s home.

Yet it seems America’s churches have now stepped into a physical unknown. Since Barna began collecting data on pastors’ response to COVID-19, the majority – 66 percent – has noted that giving has decreased. Currently, 23 percent are now considering reductions to staff in some way. It stands to reason that many are facing hard decisions about how to keep their buildings, and what to do with them in the meantime.

We can’t ignore the number of churchgoers opting for more intimate gatherings; in the past three years, one in three churched adults says they have attended a worship service in someone’s home.

Interestingly, virtual attendance of late has been greater than the typical physical Sunday gathering, according to many pastors (51 percent). This could be influenced by a few factors, such as Americans’ longing for spiritual guidance in a crisis, the accessibility of digital service options, the fact that online attendance is now more concentrated – or, perhaps, that churches’ online efforts are proving welcome and effective. Could this be a sign of a new virtual norm? Or is it possible that when – and, for some congregations, if – churches open their doors wide again, many attendees may be ready to enter them?

Is it possible that when – and, for some congregations, if – churches open their doors wide again, many attendees may be ready to enter them?

As we continue our year-long research into the State of the Church, we’ll look further into the implications COVID-19 has on where and how Christians gather together to worship – both during and after the pandemic – as well as invite experts and faith leaders to speak into this conversation.

These findings and more will be broadcast live during our State of the Church 2020 webcast for church leaders on May 20, 2020.

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