In the early months of the pandemic, much of the response from my church clients was the same. "Online church is going very well." - "Our attendance is up.""Our giving is up." However, now a year into this pandemic and approaching another Easter season, that enthusiasm has begun to wane.
The novelty of watching church in your pajamas while eating your Cheerios is wearing off in a big way. According to a recent Barna Research Poll. The majority of pastors (96%) report their churches have been streaming their worship services online during the pandemic. But that may not matter for nearly half of churched adults—that is, those who say they have attended church in the past six months; 48 percent of this group report they have not streamed an online service in the last month. Even looking at a more consistent segment—practicing Christians, who are typically characterized by at least monthly attendance—one in three (32%) admits they have not streamed an online service during this time.
This trend should concern everyone called to ministry.
Of course, God's church will always prevail.
Matthew 16:18 "I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock, I will build My church; ... rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.
On a spiritual level, we can hold firm to the biblical promise that nothing can prevail against the church.
But what about on a practical level? What about the local church that served its community in times of need and was already in decline? What about the mega-church that has lost half its attenders and can no longer keep its current staffing level? Where will people gather in fellowship if not the local church?
As I sit on my couch this Sunday, February 14th, Valentine's Day 2021, the temperature in Dallas, Texas, is a dangerous 4 degrees. Roads are iced over, and it continues to snow. Virtually everyone in the city is hunkered down for a few days of record low temperatures and record snowfall. On a Sunday like this, you can't help appreciate the ability to watch your church service online.
But will digital church replace traditional online worship? Will the once live in-person religious experience move to an online-only experience? Once the Covid-19 pandemic has run its course, will people have lost the habit and the need to attend church in person?
The good news is according to a recent PEW RESEARCH SURVEY; most U.S. adults overall say that when the pandemic is over, they expect to go back to attending religious services in person as often as they did before the coronavirus outbreak.
To be sure, a substantial share of Americans (43%) say they didn’t attend religious services in person before the pandemic struck, and they don’t plan to start going to a church or other house of worship when it’s all over. But 42% of U.S. adults say they plan to resume going to religious services about as often as they did before the outbreak, while 10% say they will go more often than they used to, and just 5% anticipate going less often.
Similarly, many Americans are not interested in virtual services: Two-thirds of U.S. adults say they have not watched religious services online or on TV in the past month. But of the one-third of U.S. adults who recently watched services online or on TV, relatively few (19% of this group, or 6% of all adults) say that once the pandemic is over, they intend to watch religious services more often than they did before it started.
Most online worshippers say that after COVID-19 has passed, they plan to revert to their pre-pandemic habits (18% of all adults) or watch online less often than they did before the outbreak (9%).
What about the future of online church? No doubt it has its place, but before you invest your entire church budget n online technology, look how regular attenders from pre-COVID times responded to the survey – (respondents who reported in a 2019 survey that they went to services at least once or twice a month). Of those congregational stalwarts, 92% expect that when the pandemic is entirely behind us, they will attend physical services at least as often as they did in the past. This includes 10% who say they will also watch online or on TV more than in the past.
Of course, it is impossible to predict how behavior will change after the pandemic, particularly if it extends further into the future than people expect. At the moment at least, very few U.S. adults anticipate substituting virtual participation for physical attendance at their church or other house of worship: Just 2% of the pre-pandemic regular attenders think that in the long run they will watch services online or on TV more often – and attend in person less often – than they used to.