How's it going for the 'virtual' church?

Tuesday, April 14, 2020
Michael F. Haverluck (

streaming church serviceA study conducted over the past few weeks shows that compared to numbers from a typical Sunday, "virtual" church attendance has risen during the COVID-19 crisis while weekly giving has decreased.

Between March 20 and April 6, the Barna Group surveyed more than 600 Protestant senior pastors in America who serve on Barna's Church Panel. The pastors were asked about their church attendance in an environment that discourages or (in some cases) bans in-person worship services:

  • 44% said virtual attendance has actually been higher
  • 29% said virtual attendance is down
  • 17% said virtual and in-person attendance are about the same
  • 7% were unsure how virtual attendance compares with in-person attendance
  • 3% don't stream or offer their services online

And even though most of the pastors surveyed said they and their congregants were generally doing well, the financial toll of the virus appears to adversely affect believers.

"For all the signs of optimism about well-being, attendance or recovery in the Church, it's impossible to deny how the financial toll of the pandemic is extending to worship communities," Barna researchers stress.

"[On the first] weekend [of March], two-thirds of pastors (64%) reported that monetary giving is down, 28% significantly and 36% slightly. While roughly a quarter (23%) claims giving has stayed the same, 13% has indicated an increase (4% significantly, 9% slightly)."

Believers coping

Despite having to retrench their budgets – or in some case, struggle financially – many pastors, their families and congregants insist that they are still doing well, at least under the circumstances.

"Overall, Protestant pastors report that they are doing well (36% very good, 48% good) with just 14% saying they are 'okay and 1% reporting they are doing poorly," Barna reports. "Similarly, pastors say their families are also well (35% very good, 53% good), with just above one in 10 (12%) saying their families are simply 'okay.'"

Pastors also said they believe most of their congregants are coping well with the outbreak, even though they've had to make some major changes to their lives.

"[O]verall, their people are holding steady (9% very good, 61% good, 29% okay)," Barna researchers gleaned from the data. "Even so, a majority of pastors also shares that their congregants have definitely been affected by the COVID-19 crisis (16% a lot, 55% some, 24% a little), with only 4% reporting 'not at all' and 1% indicating they are 'not sure.'"

No quick fix

Many pastors were expecting the COVID-19 crisis to abate within a few weeks, but when restrictions were prolonged, attitudes changed – making many realize they would need to hunker down for the long haul.

"Before social distancing guidelines were extended to the end of April, a third of Protestant pastors (31%) were hopeful they'd be hosting services in their buildings again within the month, [while] half (51%) assumed this would happen in May, [as] one in 10 (10%) looked toward June and a small percentage selected July/August (7%)," the data show.

"[Last] week … sobered expectations somewhat; nearly three in five pastors (57%) [said] they will be back in business in May, with another 27% claiming June. A growing minority believes services won't resume in person until later months (10% July/August, 1% September/October)."

Central Church senior pastor Jud Wilhite – whose congregation meets in Las Vegas – doesn't see things going back to normal any time in the near future.

"I don't think it's all going to be okay – I don't think, personally, we're going to come out on the other side and be like we were, but I also don't think that hunkering down in survival mode is going to help us when we come out on the other side," Wilhite expressed in a ChurchPulse Weekly podcast. "We have to look for opportunities now – we have to quickly shift into how we can serve."

He says major changes must be made by church leadership and congregations in their faith walk.

"Churches are wrestling with their giving being down, but they're not doing things," Wilhite continued. "You can't play it safe and say, 'If you give, then we'll do.' You've just got to go do it and ask your people to help you in the serving. Be who you are and do what you do; that's what your community needs."

Weathering tough times

Despite uncertain times, Barna Group president David Kinnaman indicates that the statistics show the great resilience the Church in America has while overcoming tough times.


"One of the things that I've observed about the data this week is that even though churches are beginning to say it might not be until June or later [when they can meet again], there's still this overall good cheer that leaders are expressing about the stability of the environment," Kinnaman offers. "I wonder whether we as leaders are realistic about the real nature of the crisis that has hit and is going to hit."

Kinnaman adds that according to the data, pastors appear to "trying to keep their chin up" while at the same time "thinking they need to be prepared for what might be the toughest month of ministry" any of them have ever had.


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