Survey: Church buildings wave, fearful and on a mission The trade

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Carlos Acosta at the Emanuel Spanish Adventist Church in Anaheim, CA. Prayer and Food Distribution Drive through for the church.

The COVID-19 coronavirus only sneaked onto the world stage a few months ago and spread extremely quickly, destroying societies, social units, health systems and entire economies.

Just a few months later, the cost of living was too high – those who are infected and lost their lives as a result of the virus, and those who suffer from changes in our daily functioning (e.g. an increase in suicide) rates, cases of domestic Abuse, depression and more). Many wonder how the church, which historically was a beacon of hope in times of need, is doing.

Because we wanted to know more about how the churches are doing at the beginning of this crisis, we wanted to (quickly) reach a large number of churches. In cooperation with the Send Institute, Exponential, Leadership Network, Catalyst, the Association of Related Churches (ARC) and Discipleship.org of the Billy Graham Center, the BGC interviewed a (non-random) sample of pastors and church leaders to understand the current answer their church.

Over 1500 church leaders answered.

The survey

In the survey, we see that many churches and pastors take things day in day out and make changes at a pace they have never had to work before. 53 percent of respondents replied that they are insecure and take things one by one every week. It is commendable. While not panicking, many have trouble navigating the new technological realities of moving online.

Pastors see that the new reality today is that churches need to learn to continue to take care of our churches and get into their neighborhoods amid widespread barring and social distancing requirements.

It is a time when we try to do an effective service and at the same time achieve a very high learning curve for service and reach – only 2 percent of the respondents meet as usual. Instead, 47 percent meet with a different format in the online settings and 36 percent with the same format, but online.

To say that this is a challenge would be an understatement for too many of our churches, but this is not the crisis – this is the time before the crisis. The churches are already beginning to deal with the crisis, but know that challenging times are ahead.

This convenience sample is a snapshot of churches within Exponential and partner networks and is not a random or scientific sample. It is a snapshot of a subset of churches (associated with these organizations, online, mostly evangelical, ready to respond, etc.) to help church leaders gain an informal understanding of where things are in relation to the state of the church and the major challenges you face are adapting to your new reality of remote service.

This survey includes 1,573 responses that were submitted online from March 18-26, 2020. We will be repeating this survey in the coming weeks with willing respondents to track the responses over time. The full PDF of the survey can be found here.

The survey raised several key questions about how churches and their pastors respond to the crisis. Given the turmoil in society, most pastors are not sure which formats to use for worship or how long this change will last.

This massive shift to online technology has also proven difficult for pastors who don't know how to use online technology for the level of connection and discipleship they have become accustomed to. In response, pastors and church leaders primarily ask for practical advice on ministry in this new context.

Finally, the pastors are generally optimistic about the financial impact of the crisis on their churches, although many are trying to proactively protect themselves against possible consequences.

First, pastors and church leaders reflect the uncertainty we see in other sectors.

After schools and businesses closed, general confusion and uncertainty was typical in several industries. Churches are not exempt from this feeling of insecurity as they try to work out new routines for weekly worship and service.

Answer to the question: "Which of the following statements best describes your future plans for corporate worship?" Over half of the executives surveyed (53 percent) expressed their uncertainty about the future and their willingness to spend only one week at a time. For many of these leaders, last Sunday was the first time they preached from afar while others had limited experience.

This uncertainty is likely to change when pastors find formats and routines that fit their contexts. This is also reflected in 20 percent of the executives who replied that they would change their activities in the coming weeks. However, until there is clarity at national level about group size and changes in government protection regulations, a large percentage of pastors may only be willing to commit weekly.

At the same time, it should be noted that 27 percent of the pastors surveyed showed confidence in their current worship format for the foreseeable future. This is surprising for many churches given the novelty of remote services and may suggest that at least some are convinced of their customized format choices.

Second, pastors and church leaders are struggling to overcome the obstacles to technology-based service.

When we asked, "What are the biggest obstacles for churches that hold online meetings?" The most common answers related to the shift in content. Over half (51 percent) of respondents said creating engaging interactions was a major obstacle to their online gathering.

This can be frustrating for pastors when they realize that the same style and tools they have used for face-to-face meetings to make connections don't work as well in online formats. Pastors need to be ready to adapt not only their content but also the way that content is delivered if they want to connect personally.

The fact that almost three out of ten respondents (28 percent) described preaching / singing in an empty room as an obstacle increases the challenge that pastors face when rethinking their communication.

More than four in ten (41 percent) indicated that learning new technologies is a major obstacle to the transition. While some churches have a lot of experience with streaming or video conferencing, some are learning these platforms for the first time and under the added pressure of their people to learn at home.

Given that this sample was collected online and that churches are connected to organizations that are innovative, it may come as a surprise that so many found learning new technologies an obstacle – and it probably means that smaller and traditional churches are ahead face greater challenges.

This challenge was also reflected in the qualitative comments, as many cited the Internet quality challenge, teaching older community members how to use the technology, or the uncertainty in finding the right digital platforms.

The tension created by the novelty of online technology is exacerbated by our sudden dependence on it. The churches acknowledge that they have no choice but this makes the challenge of learning and teaching in such a short time even more daunting.

The challenge of navigation technology was chosen disproportionately by smaller churches in this sample. For churches under 100, the two most common obstacles they chose were "technology" and "getting people to join the live stream." These were not major obstacles for larger churches, especially for over a thousand.

This is likely because larger churches used online services prior to quarantine and therefore have an infrastructure and online culture. Therefore, larger churches may see these challenges as an opportunity to serve smaller congregations by offering help that is either unknown or that is unable to set up online platforms.

It is important to note that only 7 percent of respondents raised objections and criticisms from executives or people who do not see the need for the online church as a major obstacle. While it may have taken a long time for the public to accept the seriousness of the epidemic, Church leaders cite little reluctance from their teams and leaders.

Third, pastors and church leaders are looking for practical help with quarantine work.

As companies and schools learn to work within the longer quarantine requirements, churches are considering how to adjust each element of their weekly routine.

While pastors may have been looking for information or encouragement in the early days of the epidemic, their overwhelming request for practical advice has been received. When asked, "What resources do you need to run your church, staff, or organization in this challenging time?" The most common question was how to create engaging online conversations and meetings (59 percent). Perhaps pastors recognize that their initial services have not been as fruitful as hoped and look for resources to customize their content and platforms.

Pastors similarly seek practical help in important areas of service outside of Sunday services. A majority of respondents asked for resources for the mission (53 percent) because traditional ways of contacting and serving are no longer practical.

Even though many recognize the opportunity to witness in the midst of a crisis, given government restrictions and individual health concerns, to understand when and how difficult. The churches also asked for practical tips on how to set up small online groups (44 percent). With a variety of online programs, it can be challenging to figure out how best to equip leaders to conduct dedicated Bible studies and prayer times from home.

Interestingly, the least popular choice was preaching content at only 6 percent. Despite an explosion of online sermon content that has been produced in the past two weeks and pastors who regularly refer to technology and / or the struggle to connect via online media, it still seems to be a high priority for their own people to preach.

After reflection, the pastors may want to consider whether they can better serve the church by working with other organizations to preach content to gain time to focus on connecting. If only for a short period of time, this could help remove the underlying obstacles mentioned in a previous question.

While pastors are currently confident about finances, they recognize the challenge ahead.

After the pandemic, understandably, most of the energy in the churches was used to adapt services and to meet the needs of the congregation. While the economy has stalled and many parishioners have either lost their jobs or been on temporary leave, the impact on church donation has not yet been fully recognized.

This is reflected in the pastoral answers to questions about finance. Answer to the question: "How well is your church financially prepared for this crisis?" Over half (52 percent) of the pastors said it was going to be tight, but they would do it by reducing expenses without too much pain. Another 20 percent replied that finance is not a major problem.

However, 7 percent of churches said they were likely to cancel or delay important upcoming initiatives, and 14 percent admitted that significant cuts, including wage cuts and layoffs, are likely. The bottom line is that many of the 6 percent of respondents who chose “others” either indicated uncertainty about the budgetary implications or would face financial difficulties if it took longer than the few months.

This number is likely to increase as tithing slows down in the coming weeks and churches gain a clearer understanding of their financial development. We will focus on that in subsequent surveys.

Predictably, churches that are concerned about the financial impact of the pandemic are smaller. Of the respondents who replied that they may have to close, 53 percent were pastors from churches under 50 members, while only one pastor from 500 churches expressed similar concerns. This could also be due to the bi-professional character of many small church pastorships, where second jobs can be at risk due to an economic slowdown.

Despite the relative optimism regarding church finances, this challenge is still clearly in the minds of the pastors. When asked, "What resources do you need to run your church, your staff, or your organization in this challenging time?" A significant percentage of respondents asked for help with financial problems.

The majority of pastors (55 percent) asked about content about how they could survive the financial crisis. Similarly, 49 percent of pastors surveyed requested content to maximize online giving. This is not necessarily associated with financial concerns, but rather with recognition that many members have never given online.

Even if pastors concentrate on connecting with and leading their people for the time being, they will not lose their economic reality. Pastors clearly need help considering how best to run their organizations while being sensitive to the underlying health crisis.

Innovations

We asked pastors and church leaders to respond with innovative strategies or platforms that they use to facilitate church meetings and ministries.

Some of the most common answers are:

  • The church hosts Facebook Live, Zoom, etc. every day. Devotion or Q / A. The topic is usually fear, God's sovereignty / love or evangelism.
  • Small groups gather in person to see sermons; only where this was still permitted by official orders.
  • Small groups that use online platforms to gather for discussions, prayers, Bible studies, and games (most common were Zoom, Facebook, and Microsoft teams).
  • Daily newsletter email or video; They often focused on Bible verses, curated articles, or video clips on YouTube about worship or teaching from other sources.
  • "How To" videos (tutorials) for online activities (using zoom, Facebook Live, online sharing, accessing streams).
  • Establish dedicated ministries with volunteers and coordinating leaders who focus on delivering meals, supplies, medicines, etc. to the most vulnerable. Some said they rely heavily on young people because they are less likely to be affected by the virus.
  • Coordinated phone calls to each member / participant; either split up under leadership or assigned to certain volunteers as a new service.
  • Several churches used their parking lots or drive-in cinemas to create a “drive-in” experience for churches.
  • Writing letters and / or care packages for members' neighbors so they can distribute them; Focus on introducing, exchanging cell numbers and offering help / prayer.

Aside from these common practices, there have been some innovations that could be helpful to the churches. That's why we share them here.

  • Creating "Covid-19 kits" filled with toilet paper, hand sanitizer and dried goods, etc. (cost ~ $ 5); Distribution in low-income areas.
  • Turn the church into a day care center specifically for health and safety workers (in collaboration with the city to keep the "essential" label).
  • Providing hygienic iPads for nursing homes that are quarantined by visitors so they can connect to family and church services.
  • Set up five-minute slots for church sacrament during the week so families can drive up to watch Communion.
  • Reduced production value; transformed the stage into a “living room” to emphasize the intimacy of worship and sermon.
  • Provision of mobile devices with instructions on how to access the streaming services / apps. For churches with no budget to secure enough devices, members with older devices (phones, tablets, computers) that they no longer use can be donated for this purpose if they are still in good working order.
  • Launch of a community maintenance website (www.covidcare757.com; 757 is the area code). Focus on the scriptures, prayer requests, and offerings of help.
  • Introduce a 21-day scripture, group devotion, and worship schedule at specific times each day; Designed to help church members establish a new quarantine routine around church life.
  • Organized the church in groups of 3 households each; Concentrate on looking after each other and checking in. The goal is to help with executive monitoring. Ask the “triads” to serve together (attend Sunday services, testify in their neighborhood, pray together, etc.)
  • Drive through the pantry; has teamed up with the city to host supplies.
  • Setting up a prayer in the style of a cross in a local park near the church. Everybody finds scriptures that can be read with their Bible app. Published virtual version of the tour for vulnerable participants.

Conclusions

Extensive work will be required over the coming weeks and months to understand the impact of COVID-19 on the Church. At this point in time, we cannot draw any concrete conclusions for such an unprecedented season. Churches are learning to adapt to new technologies and establish new partnerships that would have been unthinkable a month ago. However, this report gives a basic sense of where things are currently as pastors and lay Christians to answer.

As such, we can see that the churches predominantly accept online services and at the same time pay close attention to compensating for their weakness in the content networking of their population. Given this challenge, pastors are looking for extremely practical resources to bridge the gap between them and their ministers.

While pastors continue to focus on helping their people transition to a remote ecclesiastical life, the reality of the upcoming financial crisis is still clearly in their minds.

While the churches have taken their first steps to manage the transition to online services and remote work, we are only at the beginning of the crisis. As we face the challenge of caring for the sick, eliminating the fears and fears of those facing loss, and managing organizations with financial and labor shortages, the Church must be prepared for what is ahead of us lies.

How pastors and church leaders serve their people and congregations this season will likely shape the coming years for the churches. There is plenty of opportunity, but now is the time to think innovatively, to work in unity and collaboration, and to continue to focus on the Church's mission – to show and share the love of Christ in this and every time.

Andrew MacDonald, Ed Stetzer and Todd Wilson report

Contributions by Joshua Laxton, Daniel Yang and Jason Stewart

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