Barna investigates influence of 'digital age' on churchgoers

Monday, March 16, 2020
Michael F. Haverluck (

technology and the BibleA recently published study reveals that as the digital age progresses, more and more Christians are relying on technology in areas of their faith that used to be centered around the traditional church.

"Overall … the influence of recent digital trends on churchgoers is undeniable, though perhaps not as extreme as you'd expect," the Barna Group gleaned from its survey conducted in December on more than 1,600 Americans (including nearly 800 practicing Christians). "There appears to be great opportunity to thoughtfully use digital tools toward the goal of spiritual growth."

Flesh and blood or digital screen?

Even though livestream or satellite services are increasingly being used – especially by megachurches, with many using video feds or holograms to channel messages from pastors – using such technology is still far from being the norm.

"Very few – just 2% of practicing Christians – say they attend a church that uses a video or livestream sermon, with the large majority (97%) still sitting under the teaching of a live, in-person preacher," Barna researchers revealed. "[R]espondents in larger churches (200+ attendees) are more likely than those in smaller churches to report receiving virtual sermons …"

As shown in the graph detailing what people do during sermons (see below), three out of four listen closely and a third still bring physical Bibles, with a fourth taking notes and only 15% using digital Bibles … and roughly the same percentage getting distracted on their electronic devices.

Barna Graph 3-16-2020

Growing up with today's technology, younger generations use digital devices during worship services more than any other generational group of practicing Christians – and consequently are paying the least attention to pastors' messages, as they are often engaged with their electronics.

"Boomers are more likely than Gen X and Millennials to say they are listening carefully – yet all generations are just as likely to report being distracted during a service," Barna explained. "It's possible that – for more device-dependent younger generations – having a smartphone or tablet on hand during church simply feels normal … another opportunity to either aid or diminish their engagement with a sermon.

"In the same way – for an older Christian – a spiralbound notebook might become a sermon staple for writing down notes or just doodling in the margins … and, in fact, Boomers are less likely than younger generations to be taking notes during a service."

Virtual church?

Digital church services are replacing real-time church for many Americans.

"[T]he greatest competition for a churchgoer's attention may come from outside church services, [as more] 'time shifting' – first coined to refer to when people began recording media, primarily from television, to be enjoyed later – [takes place]," Barna noted. "That initial shift away from live, communal consumption has become a seemingly unstoppable movement thanks to streaming services, and, now, the Church faces a similar transition when it comes to teaching and discipleship – let's call it 'worship shifting.'"

Some outside Christian resources replacing church time include radio, books, podcasts and social medial.

"Radio remains the most prevalent – nearly half (46%) of practicing Christians uses it weekly for music, and one-third (33%) uses it weekly for teachings," Barna's research divulged. "Faith-based books are also a part of the weekly routine for nearly two in five practicing Christians (39%). Social media that helps one grow in their faith (38%) is on par with Christian books as a weekly catalyst for spiritual growth – perhaps because of its accessibility. About another one in four practicing Christians noted receiving a sermon outside of a service each week – generally via podcast (26%) or specifically through options from their own church (26%)."

Nearly half of practicing Christians use such faith-based resources instead of going to church – as 13% do so often, with 9% half the time and 27% occasionally.

"Among Millennials, these percentages climb; one in three (34%) tells Barna they 'often' replace church attendance with other forms of Christian content," the study found. "One in three churchgoers who substitute church engagement with other resources at least half the time (27% churched) says they are in a position of just beginning to explore how to grow spiritually."

Those engaged in activities during the sermon come mostly from several groups.

"[Some] churchgoers are more likely to [have their attention split by] taking notes or following along in a Bible (digital or physical), as well as more likely to be distracted or scrolling on their phone," Barna found. "Demographically, they represent more Millennials, urbanites, Democrats, ethnic minorities, singles – statistically, groups outside of the majority experience of American Christianity."


Barna president David Kinnaman drew some ups and downs from technology's effect on Americans' spirituality.

"Christian Millennials are more likely than older generations of Christians to report using digital tools to grow spiritually – such as listening to a sermon via podcast – even describing these kinds of things as a substitute for church attendance," Kinnaman explained.

"While that may read as a red flag to many ministry leaders, it's helpful to be reminded of the context for the numbers. The data primarily represent practicing Christians – those who agree strongly that faith is very important in their lives and have attended church at least once in the past month – so, even if nearly half of Millennials substitute digital and other kinds of media resources for church attendance, they are still finding time to gather with a larger body of believers at least month[ly]."

"Instead of sounding an alarm bell for pastors, these numbers should indicate an opportunity as young people – especially – are fully immersed in this new, technologically driven age that we call 'digital Babylon.' While screen time, apps and global connectivity are advances that older generations had to learn and adapt to, young adults have been raised knowing little else. It's to be expected that as technology transforms society, impacting even the simplest of daily activities, younger generations will find new ways to harness these tools – including for spiritual growth, faith sharing and church engagement."


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