What Barna’s New Data Says about Covid and Church Engagement

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Barna recently hosted another “State of the Church” monthly forum aimed at helping church leaders in Dallas, Kansas City, Columbus, and South Florida. In addition to sharing fresh data for these areas, there are national insights that are worth noting.

A previous forum shed light on how unchurched people perceived the church. You can read a summary of those findings and action steps here.

This forum, and the survey data released at the event, focused on the impact of Covid on church engagement across generations.  The report looked to shed light on how the Pandemic has changed churchgoer perception and behaviors.

I want to share a few of the stats, but also attach some recommended action steps to them. My hope is that by shining a light on the data and highlighting one potential action step, you can move from information to application to transformation.

Whenever we talk about stats and trends, our goal is to help you take a step from “that’s interesting” to “that’s actionable.”

Here are three actionable insights I want to share from the June 2021 forum.

#1 – Unchurched people pray.

One might assume that church attenders or practicing Christians pray more than others. But you might be surprised to learn that 43% of unchurched people say they pray weekly.

Prayer is one of the spiritual activities that seem to cross-denominational and theological lines. It’s a common religious practice and a relatable activity. From pre-game huddles at sporting events and concerts to the portrayal in the movies to dinner tables across the country, prayer is a fairly normal activity.

This presents church leaders with an opportunity.

The unchurched people in your community might be open to prayer prompt resources, prayer-focused groups, prayer apps, and more. Rather than bake these elements into existing ministries and programs, as many churches do, it might be worth calling this out as a stand-alone ministry or offering.

Could you offer prayer guides on your website or social channels? Could you publish prayers for moms, busy professionals, teachers, or other segments of your community? Could you ask people in your community how you can pray for them?

Chris Abbott is helping churches use Facebook Messenger ads to simply offer prayer to people who live in their community. Rather than boosting a post or running a traditional event ad, these messenger bot ads use a homemade video from a pastor and invites people to reply via messenger if they have a prayer need.

There might be an incredible ministry opportunity waiting for you in one of the most familiar religious traditions in history. 

#2 – Churchgoers say it’s important to attend church services but many don’t actually follow through.

While 78% of churchgoers say “experiencing God in a church service is important to me,” 40% of them didn’t engage with the church at all during the pandemic.

That is quite a gap between what people say is important and the actions they take.

This data may simply underline what we already know to be true about people, namely they don’t necessarily do what they say. Every day, people willfully avoid activities they know to be good for them but participate in detrimental behaviors against their better judgment instead.

We say our health is important, but we still eat foods we know are not good for us. We say financial stability is a priority, but we tend to buy things with money we don’t have. We often live apart from our stated values.

Many Christians say church attendance is personally important, but they don’t follow through with action.

Perhaps it’s time for churchgoers to be lovingly called out on this discrepancy.

With a pastoral heart, you could take the direct approach, challenging people to put feet to their faith and reminding them “faith without works is dead.” You might also take an indirect approach, reminding people of the benefits of the community, both for their own lives and the lives of their children.

For many, simply acknowledging the gap would be a good place to start. As pastors, we should shepherd our people toward this outcome.

Here's a word of caution from Matt Anderson, one of the Church Fuel coaches: “People will spell a rat if we act like mere church attendance is the antidote because no service can truly meet people’s needs in full.” In our quest to re-engage people (whether that’s in-person or online), let’s be sure not to make it all about attendance. Don’t limit God’s activity in people’s lives to church programs and worship services.

#3 – It’s hard for people to focus while watching church online.

About half of the people surveyed said that they struggle to maintain focus during online church.

Of course, people may struggle to focus during in-person church, but it’s a bigger challenge when watching or participating from home. In a service, you likely won’t get up and walk around, but while participating from home, it’s easy to hit the pause button, make breakfast, have a quick conversation, or do other activities.

When I asked church leaders if they factored this into their programming decisions, responses ranged from “there’s nothing you can do about it” to “create completely unique experiences for an online audience.”

Andrea says:

“Honestly, online is going to be distracted no matter what you do. It’s the nature of the beast. Kids, dogs, microwave, putting clothes in the dryer, stopping to go pee, the list goes on. There isn’t anything you can do to prevent that.”

Felicia says:

“We craft separate experiences because the contexts are so drastically different. In an in-person service, we work hard to make things seamlessly flow from one part to another. In our online services, we intentionally separate each part with transitions to address the shortened attention spans. For example, instead of doing 3 or 4 worship songs together at the top of service like we do in our physical locations, we do a single song at the top and a single song at the end and invite our online community to continue in worship through song on our YouTube worship playlist.”

Richard says it’s all about the content.

“I freely admit that at most in-person services I attended I found it hard to focus. Boring is boring. Interesting is interesting. If the same people don't say that it's “hard to focus” while watching Netflix, then the problem is the content, not the medium.”

Even though distraction is a problem in-person or online, wise leaders do understand that online audiences are different and participate through unique circumstances. It’s why a serious digital strategy has to be more than “let’s stick a camera in the back of the room and let people watch what we’re doing.”

Engaging your members (and non-members) with online services and content is a significant opportunity for your church.

Our newest course will help you create a personalized and documented digital strategy, taking you from identifying your audiences to creating and deploying content to building a volunteer team. Learn more about The Digital Strategy course here.

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