Most US churches planning a digital Easter amid COVID-19

Photo: Unsplash/Joshua Hanson
Photo: Unsplash/Joshua Hanson

As many churches in the United States are holding online-only services due to the new coronavirus outbreak, the majority of the congregations will celebrate Easter digitally, according to two studies.

While 99 percent of churches held services on their campuses on the first weekend of March, only 7 percent did so on March 29, according to Nashville-based LifeWay Research.

“Gathering for worship as a local church is a fundamental expression of the body of Christ, but so are valuing life and loving others,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research. “As mitigation guidance first impacted large churches, the majority of churches with 200 or more attendees were not meeting by March 15, and only 1% of them met March 22 as guidance continued to shift.”

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As next weekend is Easter, 58 percent of pastors say they plan to hold a digital service with 45 percent sharing plans to livestream online and another 13 percent recording an Easter message to send out to congregants, according to the State of the Church report by Barna Group.

While 20 percent admits there is no plan in place yet, 10 percent say they will hold an outdoor service, 5 percent hope to find another unique way to convene, and just 2 percent say they will meet as usual this Easter, the study said, adding that 5 percent plan to postpone their Easter celebration for the time being.

“If you as a pastor have a certain way you preach or approach [the Easter message], I think it’s important for you to do your best to bring who you are to the message,” Bobby Gruenewald, pastor and Innovation Leader at Life.Church and founder of the YouVersion Bible app, said in a recent ChurchPulse Weekly broadcast. “It’s great if you can have some level of worship incorporated in it as well. It doesn’t have to be the same type of experience as you would have in your physical environment. … So whatever that looks like — people are relatively forgiving right now — I would incorporate some aspect of worship into what’s being built for Easter.”

Gruenewald encouraged smaller churches to “build some type of a video experience” as there’s sufficient time and smartphones can also record good videos.

Churches with no prior experience of livestreaming have now equipped themselves.

LifeWay found that while 41 percent of Protestant pastors last fall did not provide any video content for their congregation, 92 percent of church leaders provided video sermons or worship services online in March.

“The rapid adoption of providing video content has been just as abrupt as ceasing in-person meetings,” commented McConnell in the LifeWay study. “Churches who never would have considered offering a streaming or video option, have quickly done so. Their pastors were compelled to stay connected and to continue to provide spiritual guidance during this trying time.”

Church members are also responding to the crisis.

LifeWay found that 87 percent of pastors witnessed church attendees help each other with tangible needs, and 59 percent saw members meet coronavirus-related needs within the community. And more than half said at least an attendee was able to share the Gospel through this time.

The restrictions in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic have impacted members’ income as well. As a result, half of the pastors said giving had decreased, which, LifeWay says, could be due in part to many churches’ hesitancy to adopt online giving. 

As of Sunday, there are more than 1.2 million confirmed cases of the COVID-19 disease around the world and 68,413 people have died, according to Johns Hoskins University. In the United States, the number of cases stood at 331,151 with 8,407 deaths.

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