The pandemic may be ending, but the Church’s fight is only just beginning

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Americans are swapping face masks for sunglasses as vaccine numbers rise and COVID-19 cases decline. But many pastors wonder: Will the public’s renewed fervor for the outside world include a return to church?

This question centered the discussion during the second installment of the Barna Forums last week. Christian pastors and leaders of South florida, Kansas City, Columbus, and Dallas-Fort Worth came together to learn how members of their local communities are practicing their faith and how the pandemic has changed their engagement with the church.

Charlie Dates, pastor of Progressive Baptist Church in Chicago, explained at the start of each forum that when the pandemic first struck, members of Progressive asked him if they could cancel their congregational fast that had started. before the crisis. But as they persisted in the fast, many realized that they needed such spiritual practice more than ever. They began to find new ways to care for members of their struggling community by teaming up with others to distribute meals, Instacart codes, and laptops for virtual education.

“These are things we should have done already,” Dates said. “But God has given us the blessed privilege of distress.”

The COVID-19 pandemic was difficult to manage, but it wasn’t the only challenge Dates and other pastors faced over the past year. Political unrest and racial tensions have intensified. Unemployment and isolation have shaken individuals and families. And the shift to digital church services and engagement has not only presented a technological challenge, but, for many pastors, this transition has revealed a theological tension: What role should digital spaces play in bringing believers together?

The “blessed privilege of trouble” may not seem as painful as it was at the height of the pandemic, but pastors are now looking at this issue in a new context, wondering if their benches will ever fill up like they once did.

Promote the physical

78% of American adults agree that “experiencing God in church service alongside others in person is very important to me”. It was one of many valuable ideas offered in the forums as David Kinnaman, president of the Barna group, and Savannah Kimberlin, director of published research at Barna, shared their latest research.

Several pastors present noted the discrepancy between this statistic and the number of people who are slowly returning to their churches. But having that knowledge, understanding that their local communities value in-person service, can change the way these pastors plan and navigate the coming months as the summer turns hot and church attendance traditionally declines.

Kimberlin and Kinnaman also shared that some respondents say they have strayed from their religious practice during the pandemic. Kinnaman highlighted this phenomenon specifically among Millennials, noting the opportunity for churches to support Millennials in new and creative ways. In Kansas City, 13 percent of Millennial worshipers agreed with the statement, “I’m not interested in church involvement because I’ve rethought or strayed from my practice of the faith.” They were joined by 18% of their peers in Columbus and 17% of their peers in South Florida. The numbers were lower in Dallas-Fort Worth, where just 15% of Millennials said they were straying from their faith.

These regional differences underscored the importance for church leaders to listen to locals. As pastors learn which national trends matched their cities and which differed, they are better equipped to meet the needs of community members in their specific contexts.

Showcase the hybrid

Perhaps the most astounding statistic comes from Kimberlin’s research: One in three American adults who have attended church expects churches to make some form of digital worship option available after the pandemic. In Kansas City, while most people said they expected mostly physical gatherings, a third said they expected both, which Kimberlin called a hybrid option. Similar polls were observed in South Florida, Columbus and Dallas-Fort Worth.

Mark Matlock, Insights Lead for Barna, used this survey to guide participants through a framework for putting data into practice. We can’t predict the future, Matlock said, but we can imagine it in our contexts through a few different lenses: embrace, challenge, adapt, and ignore.

As demand for a hybrid church solution increases, Matlock argues that to kiss this idea can lead a church to offer online services that seek to provide as much connection and engagement as their in-person counterparts. Difficult this data point may appear to challenge the numerical trend as equal to the physical and underscore the importance of the physical gathering of believers. Adapt may sound like the approach taken by Bennett Johnson in South Florida: viewing the online experience as “the lobby,” a place of welcome and connection, but not a replacement for the full in-person experience. Finally, said Matlock, churches can choose to ignore the data point, by simply moving forward with the plans they already have in place.

In forum discussions and breakout sessions led by Global Leadership Network and Great Commandment Network, pastors and ministry leaders discussed their evolving relationship with the digital space and their desires to use it well. in the service of others to the glory of God. Rewarding Sibanda in Dallas-Fort Worth clung to data that four in ten people without a church in her community watched a church service online during the pandemic. What might it be like, he wondered, to continue to engage this population that was affected at a time when physical proximity was not an option but will be in the months to come?

Nicole Dinsmore in Kansas noted that the data showed women felt less digitally connected to church than men. She pointed out that women often post more on social media, which means they are spending time in digital spaces, but the fact that they say they feel less fulfilled by the church online is making them feel less fulfilled. encouraged us to think in a more creative and hospitable way about how to deal with digital. space as she addressed women.

Brad Hill, Solutions Director at Barna, shared some digital tools and services that help pastors connect with people in their communities. The Big Questions in Life campaign, for example, reaches people with targeted ads that address major issues like mental illness and divorce. Those who interact with the announcements can request a pastor’s contact, which has led to text message conversations, phone calls, and even face-to-face meetings between pastors and community members.

“People will go deep and fast online,” Hill said, recounting the stories of domestic violence and depression respondents shared. By connecting injured people with pastors who can care for them and refer them to mental health professionals and additional services, these tools enable churches to manage digital in service of the person.

As pastors and ministry leaders connected to each other during forums, even inviting each other into local collaborations and initiatives, the power of the body of Christ coming together has been revealed as one of the many blessings of privilege. of difficulty. Barna and Gloo will continue to provide cutting-edge data and opportunities to come together around difficult questions and creative solutions during the third round of forums in South florida, Kansas City, Columbus, and Dallas-Ft Worth August 11 and 12.

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