Earlier this week, LifeWay Research conducted a survey of Protestant pastors, hoping to discern how the COVID-19 pandemic had affected their congregation so far. Aaron Earls reports on the results here.

The new research shows a massive swing toward digital avenues of connection and communication, as well as an alarming drop in giving. Right now, we’re seeing churches take advantage of technological tools while bracing for significant financial challenges 

From ‘In Person’ To Online

The first big shift is, understandably, away from in-person gatherings. The statistics here won’t surprise you, but seeing them on a chart is sobering. On the weekend of March 1, 99 percent of churches gathered, and 95 percent still gathered the next week. By March 15, the number had dropped to 64 percent, and by March 22 to 11 percent. On the last weekend in March, only 1 percent of churches with an average attendance more than 200 met in person. The survey shows what we all are experiencing: the near-total absence of in-person worship gatherings across the country.

The shift away from in-person gatherings corresponds to a striking increase in pastors providing some kind of video sermon or livestream. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, pastors have scrambled to find new ways to connect and communicate with their congregations.

Consider this jump: from 22 percent of churches that were already livestreaming their worship service before the pandemic to now 66 percent of churches. And consider this: a survey last fall showed 41 percent of pastors indicating they did not provide livestreaming or video content. Contrast that number with 92 percent of Protestant pastors who have provided some kind of video sermon or worship service in the past two weeks. 

(Coordinating digital connection for smaller groups in churches has been a tougher challenge. Smaller groups have met online in more than half of these congregations, but 40 percent haven’t made that switch.)

It’s too early to know as to what technological changes wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic will “stick” once we emerge on the other side. Some have wondered if the shift to digital will lead to the permanent prioritization of online communication and a downplaying of the in-person worship service.

I believe the opposite may be the case. Although it’s likely that many or most churches that have begun providing a livestream or video content will continue to do so after in-person gatherings resume, it’s also the case that more people likely sense the irreplaceability of the flesh-and-blood gathering of their church family. Technology can help with communication, but communication is not community. Digital options may enhance ministry, but a livestream does not substitute for in-person gathering.

Alarming Drop in Giving

The rapid adoption of livestreaming and video content may be happening, in part, because leaders understand the precarious financial situation their churches might be in if the nationwide stay-at-home orders continue. According to a LifeWay Research study from 2016, one in four Protestant churches in the United States as of 2016 had seven or fewer weeks’ worth of operating reserves.

The new research shows more than half of pastors acknowledging a decrease in giving already, and of those who have seen giving decline, 60 percent say it has dropped by at least 25 percent (30 percent of that smaller number say their giving has been cut in half!). Just as church leaders have rushed to provide digital avenues of connection and communication, they may soon be implementing online giving options also.

Pressure Pastors Feel

Right now, 75 percent of pastors know people in their church who have been affected financially by the pandemic, and nearly half are aware of church attendees who have lost their jobs. That number is likely to rise, as the most recent unemployment numbers have gone from 6.6 million to a staggering 10 million people out of work.

During a time in which church members are facing health or financial crises, the research shows pastors feeling the need to stay connected to their congregation and offer pastoral care. They are also concerned about the financial state of their churches and how to lead strategically in this moment.

On the positive side, we’re seeing the church rise up as members help each other with tangible needs (87 percent) or reach out to the community (59 percent), and share the gospel (55 percent). It’s in the darkest times when the church can shine the brightest, and this crisis is no exception.

These are sobering statistics. Our feelings of discouragement and anxiety should not lead us to despair. The best place to be is on our knees in prayer before our King, lifting up to him the hurts and pains of the people we serve, and trusting that even during worldwide disruption, his worldwide kingdom will continue to advance.