Nearly half of churchgoers haven't watched an online service in the last four weeks, and among those who have, only 40% say they've been watching services from their regular home church, according to recent polling data.
The new data from the Barna Group was highlighted in a blog post by Carey Nieuwhof, a former lawyer and founding pastor of Connexus Church in Ontario, Canada.
In the post, Nieuwhof noted that 48% of churchgoers reported that they had not watched any church online in the last four weeks. Less than half of the remaining 52% who did watch church online said they watched the service of their own church, with a “surprising 23%” reporting that they streamed a different church online, Nieuwhof said.
And while some church leaders have been clamoring for churches to be allowed to reopen their buildings to re-start in-person services, Nieuwhof said research also shows that not everyone plans on rushing back to the pews.
“As tempting as it will be to reopen the doors and believe everyone is coming back, the data (right now) shows that’s probably not the case,” Nieuwhof noted. “To begin, social distancing makes full rooms impossible and, until it’s safe to do mass gatherings, unwise. Full rooms are months away, if not longer.”
He cited recent polling data from personal growth platform Gloo from thousands of church leaders showing that there is little consensus on when it will be “safe” to gather again in public.
Only 21.5% of pastors said a low community level of coronavirus cases would be a good time for them to reopen for services again. Some 17% said only when social distancing and stay at home guidelines are lifted, while 14% said when local businesses are open.
Another 8% noted that the opening of local restaurant seating would be a good sign to reopen. Smaller percentages of pastors said they first wanted to see either widely available testing, the reopening of schools, or a vaccine before they would hold in-person services.
Some 15% required all of those conditions to be met, while some 10% said they just weren’t sure when they would reopen.
“Prepare yourself for the emotional letdown of a staggered and less than optimal return. I know what it feels like to be hoping for a full room in normal conditions and seeing empty seats,” Nieuwhof wrote to church leaders.
“That may be the reality for a while to come. My guess is a lot of leaders are struggling with the lack of ‘normal’ more deeply than they realize. Get counseling, talk to a friend, pray and prepare yourself for a longer period of disruption than you want. That’s what leadership requires sometimes,” he noted.
Nieuwhof further noted that the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has fast-tracked the digital shift in many industries, including the church world, and predicts that “growing churches in the future will become digital organizations with physical expressions, not physical organizations with a digital presence.”
“I realize there will be many who push back against this, but it’s foolish to ignore the fact that people connect more easily online and often admit the truth more readily online than they do in-person (that might not be right, but, as this Stanford research shows, it is often true),” he wrote. “To put digital church back on the shelf in the new normal is to ignore the greatest opportunity the church today has to reach people.”