Facebook timelines changed forever on Sunday, March 15, 2020.
Many, if not most, churches opted to go digital-only that day after witnessing such steps as President Trump declaring COVID-19 a national emergency, and professional and collegiate sports suspending activities. As church leaders looked to make services available for members, Facebook scrambled to keep up with the increased demand, which was created in large part by those congregations livestreaming on the social media platform.
The following weeks brought a sink-or-swim time for churches regarding technology. Those not using it before had to learn — quickly. Offering plates were traded for giving through an app. Living room couches became pews. Laptops at the kitchen table hosted Sunday School classes, prayer group gatherings and church staff meetings. The word “zoom” — up till then classified as a verb — became a noun (“Let’s meet on Zoom”) and then a verb again, as in “We’re going to Zoom Sunday night.”
Of the seismic changes brought by COVID-19, the expansion of online platforms for churches is perhaps the biggest. With Barna Research showing that just 3 percent of churches remained open as usual in late March 2020, finding other options to meet became paramount.
One year later, COVID cases are on the decline, and people are venturing out from their homes more often. Yet, even as the number of churchgoers attending in-person has continued to rise, leaders are quick to say that the need for an online presence isn’t going anywhere.
Respondents to the Barna report agreed that in-person gatherings were preferred, with 81 percent calling them “very important” for experiencing God alongside others. Fifty-two percent may seem like a low number for churched adults choosing primarily physical gatherings, but 35 percent said they would like a hybrid of those conducted in physical as well as digital settings — a blended term known as “phygital” ministry.
“It doesn’t replace existing community,” the report said. “Rather, it is an enhancement of community by reimagining the tools that the body of Christ can use to reach people with the hope of Jesus. ‘Phygital’ ministry uses technology as a tool to support the mission of the Church in both the physical and digital realms — to grow across multiple contexts and to multiply everywhere that people gather, online or in person.”
Sixty percent of churched adults hoped their church would continue to use digital means of gathering post-pandemic, according to Barna. This would help not only keep members engaged who can’t attend in person, but also benefit those preferring to visit churches online.
Online tools and the accessibility they give a church may lead pastors to think it will open up a whole new era of church-hopping. However, the Barna study revealed that 90 percent of respondents remained engaged throughout the pandemic with the church they attended beforehand.
— Scott Barkley is national correspondent for Baptist Press.