Online Services Expanded Reach of Churches During Pandemic

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Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, online worship services were a novel concept for many churches. In the almost two years since, however, churches have adapted and reached new people with the adoption of digital streaming.

According to a new study from Nashville-based Lifeway Research, 45% of Americans say they have watched a Christian church service online during the COVID-19 pandemic, including some who say they don’t normally physically attend. Around half (52%) say they have not watched a church service during the pandemic, most of whom say they don’t normally attend church in person either.

“The distance to one’s nearest church has changed almost overnight,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research. “A form of communication that was not even used by most churches before the pandemic has now reached almost half of Americans.”

In a previous Lifeway Research study of Protestant pastors conducted prior to the spread of COVID-19, 41% said they didn’t regularly livestream any portion of their church service or post the sermon online later. At the time of the survey, only around 1 in 4 (27%) said they livestreamed either the entire service or just the sermon.

As the coronavirus began to spread and social distancing guidelines emerged, the vast majority of churches quickly provided digital options. By March 2020, Lifeway Research found 92% of Protestant pastors said they provided some type of video sermons or worship services online. That climbed to 97% in April 2020.

In a Lifeway Research study from early 2021, 85% of Protestant churchgoers said their congregation offered livestreamed worship services, and 76% said their church posted a video of the worship service to watch later. Additionally, 53% of churchgoers said they watched online worship services at their church more in 2020 than in 2019, while 21% said they watched more online services at a different church in 2020.

Throughout the pandemic, Lifeway Research found pastors reporting that new people who had previously not attended their church in the past attended or connected online. The latest study seems to bear that out.

When asked, “Have you watched a Christian church service online during the COVID pandemic?” 45% say they have, including 30% who normally attend church in person and 15% who normally do not attend in person.

“It’s not surprising to see churchgoers using online options to view a church service, but there are also those who have not been church attendees who have at least checked out a church service during the pandemic,” said McConnell.

Americans with evangelical beliefs are three times as likely as other Americans to say they watched church services online during the pandemic and normally attend church in person (64% to 20%).

Some of those most likely to say they watched church services online during the pandemic but don’t normally attend church in person include young adults ages 18-34 (18%) and African Americans (22%).

Churches were still not able to reach most Americans with the expansion of digital offerings during the pandemic, however, as 52% say they have not watched services online during the pandemic. Most of those (42%) say they haven’t watched online and normally do not attend church in person. Another 1 in 10 Americans (10%) say they do normally attend church in person but have not watched a church service online during the pandemic.

“Church participation is in flux,” said McConnell. “Some who were regular, in-person churchgoers before COVID-19 only view online services today, others have never tuned in online despite the pandemic, and still others use both at different times. This shift has created both challenges and opportunities for pastors and church leaders.”

Aaron Earls is a writer for Lifeway Christian Resources.

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