With many churches and businesses finding that the only way to survive during the COVID-19 pandemic was to go virtual, a new study was conducted to observe American adults’ disposition toward online church services and the way America does church could be changing.
The Barna Group conducted its newly released State of the Church survey in collaboration with Alpha and found that even though online services are not the same as in-person fellowship at church, they still provide “meaningful and shared experiences and encounters with God.”
Online church here to stay?
Barna reports that research shows online prayer groups are a byproduct of a consistent prayer life, with most Christians willing to attend prayer activities virtually during the pandemic.
“More than two-thirds of Christians (68%) say they are at least somewhat open to actively participating in a time of prayer during an online church service gathering, [which] more than doubles the percentage of non-Christians who express such openness,” the Barna survey divulges.
“Still, that means one in three adults outside Christianity (32%) – and even one-quarter of those with no faith at all (23%) – would still consider participation in digital times of prayer with a church.”
It was also found that a strong majority of churches only meet online for services.
“Most adults who have attended churches providing online services through the pandemic (60%) say this is the only digital activity through their church,” researchers note. “Additionally, among those who have actually watched church online during the pandemic, just 53% actually follow along with prayer times while viewing.”
man praying at sunsetPrayer remains personal
American Christians are shown to prefer personal prayer above prayer amidst fellowship.
“When asked if they had attended an in-person corporate prayer gathering within the past year – both before and during the COVID-19 response – one-third of Christians (32%) says yes,” Barna reveals. “A similar percentage (28%) reports attending a digital prayer gathering during that time.”
Slightly more Christians participate in designated prayer groups in-person than online, as well.
“Prayer in more-defined groups leans toward an in-person format; 43% of Christians say they usually participate in small group prayer in person at least monthly, as opposed to 30% who do so digitally,” the survey shows. “Prayer in large group settings is, likewise, more often an in-person (36%) rather than online exercise for Christians (27%).
Similarly, prayer online is a no-go for most believers, who are far more likely to physically meet for prayer groups.
“Six in 10 Christians participate in neither large (62% ‘never’) nor small (59%) group prayer digitally; in person, far fewer have ‘never’ engaged (35% small group prayer, 40% large group prayer),” Barna adds.
More open to online prayer?
However, non-practicing Christians are surprisingly more engaged in prayer groups than anticipated.
“One in five non-practicing Christians says they pray digitally with a small group (20%) or a large group (19%) of people at least monthly,” the study reveals. “Furthermore, the data suggest that many of these non-practicing Christians who, by definition, are less active in a church, have a notable interest in digital group prayer. One in four (24%) goes so far as to say that no barrier would keep them from considering participating in a digital group prayer experience.”
Barna also conducted a September survey of more than 1,300 U.S. adults to identify the “early adopters of digital group prayer.” The results indicate:
40% of Millennial and Gen Z Christians participated in small or large group prayers digitally
Gen Z, Millennials and Gen X were similarly open to online prayer
Gen Z leads the three groups with 53% participating in digital group prayer
46% of practicing Christians identified as being “very open” to online church services
55% of practicing Christians prayed in small online groups frequently, with less (49%) in small groups
36% of practicing Christians participated in digital prayer groups
44% of black Christians were “very open” to praying during online services
50% of black Christians participated in digital prayer groups
Approximately 50% of racial/ethnic minorities frequently attended online group prayer
65% of white Christians “never” attended small group digital prayer, while 68% never attended digital large group prayer
70% of churched adults with “high digital openness” frequently prayed in online groups (47% in small groups, 32% in large groups)
58% of churchgoers with “high digital openness” were “very open” to online church prayer, with 48% attending such meetings