Trends

U.S. churches closed to the public take new approaches to work and community

Last Sunday, the White House announced an extension of nationwide social distancing to April 30. With federal guidelines and local “shelter-in-place” guidelines, many pastors are now faced with the new reality of not seeing their congregants face-to-face until the month of May, at least.

We’re exploring how church leaders and their congregants are adapting to the closure of their physical spaces of worship and the innovative ideas blossoming around community and connectivity as a result of new realities.

Overall, church buildings are closed for the time being

Given nationwide calls for mass-scale social distancing, a vast majority of pastors (73 percent) reports that their church facilities are not open to the public – 58 percent say their building is open for staff only, while the other 15 percent report facilities being closed to staff as well.

When asked, “As of today, when do you think you’ll be able to host church services again in your usual building / location(s),” four in 10 church leaders believe their churches will reopen in April. Just over one-third (39 percent) are looking toward May, while some expect they won’t be back to ministry as usual until summer.

It’s important to note that the data shown above was collected before Sunday, March 29, 2020, when President Trump extended nationwide social distancing guidelines to April 30.

Nearly one-third of small groups and Bible studies continues to meet digitally

In the data collected between March 20-23, discussed during our first episode of ChurchPulse Weekly, pastors noted ministry changes as a result of COVID-19 were primarily felt in small groups / Bible studies (82 percent).

This week, church leaders report that while 38 percent of these groups “have stopped meeting,” more than half are using digital tools to stay connected, with 22 percent “using social media or group chat to stay in touch” and about one in three “meeting in real time using video or conference calls.” Other groups “are meeting outdoors or practicing social distancing when together” or “continue to meet in person as usual” (2 percent each) while 4 percent of pastors say they are not sure what is happening with these gatherings.

David Kinnaman notes, “One of the really encouraging parts of this data is seeing the innovation of churches starting to deepen. For example, we found that small-group participation has doubled in terms of using social media as an outlet, and churches are not just responding tactically on how to do digital worship, but more importantly, focusing on delivering a message of hope and faith during this time.”

Small-group participation has doubled in terms of using social media as an outlet.

– David Kinnaman

Pastors continue to report an increase in (virtual) attendance

Last week, one-third of church leaders (32 percent) said they don’t stream church services online. This week, the data show a significant increase in the number of churches streaming online, with just 7 percent of pastors responding they still do not stream their church service.

“Up until now, church has really been deemed as a model that requires a date, a time, and a location,” says Nona Jones, head of faith-based partnerships at Facebook and pastor, along with her husband Tim, at Open Door Ministries in Gainesville, Florida. “Now we’re seeing that technology allows us to actually minister to people 168 hours a week. I’m excited about what the opportunities are here.”

You have to be in community with people … [J]ust because we have physical distancing guidelines doesn’t mean that we have to truly socially distance. There are platforms where we can still connect.

– Nona Jones

“I think sometimes we think we’re discipling people if they are coming in the building on the weekend and watching a sermon, when in fact, discipleship is really the relational maturation of faith,” Jones continues. “You have to be in community with people. I think this present situation has allowed us to realize that just because we have physical distancing guidelines doesn’t mean that we have to truly socially distance. There are platforms where we can still connect.”

I think sometimes we think we’re discipling people if they are coming in the building on the weekend and watching a sermon, when in fact, discipleship is really the relational maturation of faith.

– Nona Jones

More than three-quarters of church leaders report giving is down

The number of pastors reporting a decrease in giving has risen from 62 percent to 79 percent in the past week.

Data show that the number of pastors reporting a decrease in giving has risen from 62 percent to 79 percent in the past week. Barna’s first weekly pastor poll showed that while many pastors reported an increase in virtual attendance, more than half reported that giving was down (25 percent slightly, 37 percent significantly). Last week, just over one in three pastors (35 percent) said that giving rates “stayed about the same,” and only two percent noted some level of increase.

When asked about their primary strategy to encourage financial generosity to their church this week, nearly two in five pastors (38 percent) note a plan to “direct people to our existing online giving.” Another one in five (19 percent) say they would “highlight options for check and cash donations,” while 15 percent say they would “implement online giving for the first time.” Other responses include speaking more often about generosity during the service (3 percent), modeling generosity as a church community (3 percent), highlighting an existing text-to-give process (2 percent) and implementing text-to-give for the first time (1 percent). Fourteen percent of pastors say they “did not specifically strategize about generosity this week.”

“Four out of five pastors say that giving is lower, and half say it was down significantly,” explains Kinnaman. “I think the financial impact of this crisis is really starting to set in as households begin to think about tightening their budgets, their discretionary money and how they donate to a church.”

Church leaders report being most informed and supported by their denomination

This week, one in four church leaders (30 percent) says that their denomination is providing them with the most help in terms of information, tools, and resources to deal with the crisis, a notable shift from the week prior when pastors said members of the state and/or local government were providing more help than their denomination (24 percent vs. 20 percent ). This change may suggest that denominations have assessed their church leaders’ needs and are stepping up to fill the gap now that they’ve had time to offer a formal response or action plan.

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.

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