By Marissa Postell
Everything affects something. Nothing happens in a vacuum.
And COVID-19 certainly didn’t happen in a vacuum. It landed in the pond of our world with a splash that caused ripples far beyond itself as more people began working from home, pursuing online education, joining video calls, and placing orders for grocery pick-ups.
Churches were also immediately affected by the ripples of COVID-19 as people found substitutes for attending in-person worship services. Now, as COVID progresses and people hope and plan for a world no longer crippled by COVID, the question becomes which of these substitutes for in-person worship were actually temporary? And what does that mean for churches?
“The Ripple Effect: Congregations, COVID, and the Future of Church Life,” a Fall 2021 study from Grey Matter Research and Infinity Concepts suggests long-term changes may be coming to the church world.
The virtual visit
More than 3 in 4 evangelicals (78%) say they watched online worship services as a substitute for missing in-person worship, according to Grey Matter. And most evangelicals who watched services online (87%) watched the church they were attending prior to the pandemic. They kept the same pastor, theology, and worship style, and just shifted to an online experience.More than 3 in 4 evangelicals (78%) say they watched online worship services as a substitute for missing in-person worship, according to Grey Matter. Click To Tweet
Some chose to watch online services of another local church (14%) or even non-local church (22%). The Grey Matter research shows that 19% of evangelicals both attended online services at their own church and watched services through another congregation. Whether they were simply curious, dissatisfied with the online experience at their own church, interested in anonymously exploring other options, or previously dissatisfied with their own church, 11% of all evangelical Protestants (approximately 7 million people) virtually visited at least one church other than their own during the pandemic.
The online experience
A 2021 Lifeway Research study found that 91% of people plan to attend in-person worship services at least as often as they did before the pandemic once COVID-19 is no longer an active threat to people’s health. But only 3 in 4 churchgoers have returned so far, according to Lifeway Research. And many believe the online experience has served them well, according to The Ripple Effect report.
Although most evangelicals who turned to online services during the pandemic tended to agree they prefer the in-person experience, the study from Grey Matter Research and Infinity Concepts found a substantial portion of evangelicals don’t necessarily see advantages to in-person services.
The study asked evangelicals to compare in-person services with online services in eight areas: trying different churches, comfort in inviting others, giving your full attention, authentic worship, learning from the teaching, connection and engagement, personal comfort, and music and singing.61% of evangelicals who experienced online services don't feel in-person services are superior to online in terms of a person's ability to learn from the teaching, according to Grey Matter. Click To Tweet
Most significantly, 61% of evangelicals who experienced online services don’t feel in-person services are superior to online in terms of a person’s ability to learn from the teaching. One in 10 even say they learn better with online services. Across the board, a sizable minority of evangelicals say the online experience is better than or at least equal to the in-person experience.
A significant concern for churches? Only 18% of evangelicals believe attending church in person is superior in every way to viewing a service online. Almost half (45%) say online is better in at least one way, and 9% say it is at least equal if not better in every area surveyed. The question is: What will people do when they see choosing their church experiences as a matter of trade-offs?Evangelicals under the age of 40 are most likely to say attending church in person is better in every way than an online experience, according to Grey Matter. Click To Tweet
Perhaps surprisingly, younger evangelicals didn’t necessarily prefer the online experience. Those under the age of 40 are most likely to say attending church in person is better in every way than an online experience. Similarly, Lifeway Research found young adult churchgoers (age 18 to 29) are the most likely to say they will attend church more often after COVID-19 than they did before (43%).
What it means for churches
As churches consider the experiences and habits formed among their members during the COVID-19 pandemic, it can be difficult to evaluate the long-term implications and how to continue forward. According to the study from Grey Matter, only 44% of evangelical Protestants who participated in online worship experiences during the pandemic say they want to return exclusively to in-person worship once the pandemic is over. That leaves 56% who are willing to keep their options open moving forward, including those who want to return primarily to in-person church with occasional online use (36%), those who plan to use online and in-person about equally (9%), those who want to primarily watch church online and attend in person occasionally (7%), and those who want to stick exclusively with the online experience (2%).Only 44% of evangelicals who participated in online worship during the pandemic say they want to return exclusively to in-person worship, according to Grey Matter. Click To Tweet
The rise of a new option doesn’t mean the death of old options. More often, people want to incorporate multiple options to best suit their needs and preferences. Although many evangelicals want to continue to have the option for online worship experiences moving forward, most evangelicals still want the in-person church experience.
According to a later 2021 study from Lifeway Research, churches are now open at pre-pandemic levels. And most churchgoers have returned to in-person services, although three-quarters of Protestant pastors say their churches are still below pre-pandemic attendance.
This raises a lot of questions for churches about the future of effective ministry. How can churches best serve people? In person? Online? Both? How?
Another 2021 Lifeway Research study emphasized how churches have expanded their reach during the pandemic as people who did not previously attend church are streaming services online.
“This shift has created both challenges and opportunities for pastors and church leaders,” Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research, said.
How will churches continue to adapt and respond now that online services are common and even expected? This is the time for churches to think creatively and strategically about how to engage in ministry in a world that has undoubtedly been affected by COVID-19.
Marissa Postell Sullivan
Marissa is the managing editor for LifewayResearch.com.