November 13, 2020

Online Church Trends: Bad News, Good News, and Where We're Headed

After an initial spike in attendance online, both newcomers and regular churchgoers have begun to drop out in large numbers. However, there remains great openness and enthusiasm to deepen spiritual life online even after churches open to re-gather.

Barna, The Unstuck Group, and others have been collecting data, and publishing fascinating and useful trend analysis, since the very beginning of the pandemic. Now that we are all well past the half-year mark, some things are becoming clear, and some new questions remain unresolved.

Churches have begun to regather, but in-person attendance is low

Let’s start with some of the hard news.

According to The Unstuck Group, in-person attendance at churches that have reopened is only 36% of pre-Covid attendance levels.

This may have been a hard surprise at first, but it makes sense when you think about who may be remaining at home right now, such as those particularly vulnerable to infection. And, there are many who have found online church a good alternative for some or all of their Sundays:

  • Parents of particularly rambunctious children
  • People with anxieties around large groups, especially during local spikes in virus cases
  • Introverts who communicate more easily from the comfort of their home
  • Members of the congregation with physical handicaps for whom attending in person is impractical
  • Spouses and family members of unchurched people who are finally able to ‘do church’ together
  • Newcomers who live far away
  • And, of course, local newcomers who are not yet ready to step into a brick-and-mortar church.

Churched adults are dropping out

source: Barna

According to Barna, during the pandemic, 40% of churchgoers have not attended a church service more than 2 or 3 times. This is compared to 20% in December 2019. Ouch.

This is particularly hard to hear. In March and April, many churches were experiencing spikes in their online attendance. Former members who had moved away were re-connecting to the community by appearing in Zoom calls and in the chat in the Sunday livestream. Many churches report that local citizens who had passed by the church thousands of times but had never entered used this time of lockdown to finally see what’s going on ‘inside.’ And a nation and world weary and worried about the pandemic were turning, as they often do, to online faith communities for comfort and hope.

As with other acute moments, that spike returned to pre-crisis levels. The Unstuck Group found that online viewership is now 12% below pre-Covid in-person attendance.

So, was online church false hope, just a short-term fix?

Churchgoers have grown to like digital church

If the dropouts are at the short end of the trend, there are still many signs of long term traction with church online.

  • 3 out of 5 adults hope that, even post-Covid, their church will continue to use digital means to bring people together. Looks like all those introverts and parents and people who find in-person church a little intimidating are voting with their feet.
  • 63% of churched adults want their faith community to use digital resources for spiritual formation. This implies online activities that go beyond mere consumption of a sermon message and worship music. Spiritual formation can adopt an online dimension. Small groups who “sit together” during Sunday service and discuss the sermon afterward or in real-time. It may actually be easier for someone to ask to sit in private prayer together online, away from the gaze of others milling around. After-church online classrooms for deeper study may attract a whole new category of attendees.
  • 35% of churched adults say “some combination of both physical and digital gatherings would suit them well. To Millennials, this approach seems particularly promising; in fact, they are just as likely to choose hybrid church as they are to choose physical gatherings as their preference moving forward.” For all the loss that has come with Covid, this may be an entirely new gain in which Millennials are easier to reach and disciple.

What Makes Church Online Engaging?

About that finding above — the 40% of churchgoers who have dropped out. It is accompanied by a curious anomaly. What exactly do churchgoers mean by ‘attending’ church? It turns out that almost half of the dropouts report they have not “attended church worship services, either in person or digitally,” even though they say they have “watched a church service online” during that same period.

Apparently, something is not only something different about an online church experience compared to in-person, but there is also something less, something missing. Barna’s own observation is that “viewing, attending, and engaging are not the same, and a more holistic strategy for digital or hybrid ministry is needed for the long term.”

An immediate and somewhat obvious conclusion is that livestreaming is missing people; there is a lack of sense of community. When you attend church online, it is hard to tell who else is also attending, unless they speak up in the chat pane. And, even then, it is awkward to carry on a simple, private greeting that is broadcast to the entire online audience.

For some, part of church includes seeing who else is there, and being seen. For others, just the chance to make eye contact and say a brief hello over coffee is an essential aspect of community. An online facsimile of the passing of the peace, a private conversation over coffee, or a chance to pray quietly together with someone may make the difference between watching and attending. Some of us are missing the physical nature of the sacraments, and the fullness of the sound of a congregation in full throated song.

The baseline of sung worship and a sermon delivered by livestream has been set. The next chapter of church online will address some or all of these missing elements, and will uncover altogether new and unexpected behaviors.

What has your church been doing online, or elsewhere, to bridge the gap between watching and attending?