Adapting to the Covid New Normal: Why Online Worship is Not Enough

By Dr. Darren Slade,
FaithX Research Director

This discussion on why online worship is not enough is the second post in our new ongoing blog series, Adapting to the Covid New Normal, where our research director, Dr. Darren Slade, will provide a deeper research base for the posts we are publishing on congregations and Covid-19.

Dr. Slade will describe the research and Ken Howard will provide a pastoral perspective.

In a previous post entitled, “What We Learned from Our Experiment with Online Worship,” Rev. Ken Howard discussed finding creative ways to hold worship services online during the COVID-19 pandemic. As an experimental case study, Ken partnered with the Church of the Ascension in Gaithersburg, Maryland, which held an online service that reached 51 people on Zoom and 900+ on Facebook Live. What he originally learned now has some parallels with the latest research on congregational life during the Coronavirus crisis.

Online Worship is Not Enough.

The most significant lesson learned was that while online worship is necessary, it is not sufficient to maintain healthy congregational vitality. Other church programs are still needed. Yet, the latest research suggests that almost all church programming has come to a sudden and dramatic halt. A survey of 116 Catholic bishops from the United States reveals that more than half said COVID-19 has caused a major disruption in their regular programming, including sacramental celebrations and charitable services. Approximately 8 out of 10 bishops have had to assist with setting up online worship services, but they haven’t been able to do much more. The result has been a major blow to the overall morale of clergy, staff, and volunteers.

What’s important to note is that online worship services are now the preferred method for maintaining at least some connection. In fact, as the American Enterprise Institute already revealed, most congregants are still not comfortable with attending in-person services (the exception being white evangelicals). In fact, when given the chance to attend church, more than half still choose to stay home. According to another report, the majority of congregations (again, the exception being evangelicals) have not returned to in-person services and are still unsure about when (or even if) they will return at all. For those churches that have reopened, most report seeing less than half of their members return.

But as Ken indicated in his post, online worship is simply not enough to spiritually feed congregants. This becomes especially true when we realize that 24% of American adults feel their faith has actually strengthened during the pandemic, indicating that a significant portion of people are still very spiritually hungry. The problem, of course, is that people feel like they have little to no opportunities for connection. Indeed, a study from the University of Chicago Divinity School reveals that the majority of Christians have resigned themselves to simply praying in private. Only about 27% are actually attending live-streaming services at any given time.

As the Springtide Research Institute has demonstrated, social distancing has exacerbated feelings of loneliness and despair in young people. The same is likely true for adults, as well. Hence, offering something more than just online worship really could mean saving lives, especially since those who attend weekly services are less likely to die by suicide, drug overdose, substance misuse, or alcohol during COVID-19 (so-called “deaths of despair”).

Supplementing Online Worship

  • Host Mini In-Person Church Services. One of the safest ways for churches to extend beyond virtual worship is to hold smaller-sized meetups of ten people or less. Since most churches can accommodate a handful of people, they can reserve time for small in-person worship, prayer, or leadership events. That way, congregants have an excuse to escape their homes while also escaping to a safe location that practices social distancing. Of course, if you opt for this choice, it’s important not to be naïve about the dangers of in-person gatherings (no matter how small they are).

    Keep in mind that people do, in fact, show up to church sick. Moreover, someone does not need to show any symptoms of contagion to spread the Coronavirus. In fact, it takes at least five days and as long as two weeks before an infected person shows symptoms. And some people never show symptoms of being infected, making them more likely to spread the disease to many more people. This is what happened to one Arkansas church when a pastor and his wife super-spread the virus without ever showing symptoms, infecting 35 people total in the process, hospitalizing 7, and killing 3.

  • Hold Drive-In Services. According to one survey, about 4% of Christians attend a drive-in service weekly. While such a low number might suggest a general dislike, it may be that drive-in church services simply are not as widespread as live streaming services. But there are indications they might actually be quite popular in some settings, so it’s worth entertaining the possibility. The concept is fairly simple: congregants drive into the parking lot of their house of worship (or local drive-in theater), keep their windows up, and tune into the local radio station to hear their pastor speak from a stage (or other vantage point). And for those still not wanting to venture outdoors, you can simply live stream the service simultaneously.

    Drive-in church services could also provide leaders with one other opportunity: drive-in to-go food orders. As cars pull out of the parking lot at the end of service, there can be someone waiting at the exit with a pre-made box full of food and household essentials to those who need them, which can quickly and safely be passed through the window (or just placed directly into the car trunk). Offering this type of service may even inspire non-regular churchgoers in need of supplies to show up and hear the sermon.
  • Drive-Thru Blessings and Other Non-Worship, No-Touch Options. Ken suggests that similar but non-worship approaches might also be helpful. The same congregation mentioned in the earlier article does monthly “Drive through Blessings,” in which people drive through the church parking lot to receive a blessing (and sometimes a small gift) from Padre Javier O’Campo. Other examples Ken has heard include Drive-Thru Blessings of Palms, Backpacks, and Animals, Drive-Thru Confessions, Mass on the Grass, Outdoor Sunday School, and more (Ken’s suggestion of drive-by baptisms by the clergy of his church drew much laughter but no takers).
  • Making Non-Worship Functions Available On-Line. Ken also suggests that since the research says that vast numbers of people still do not feel comfortable with being in a physical worship center, it makes sense to supplement online worship with as many online congregational functions as possible. In other words, it is important that congregations provide attendees with both online and in-person options (to the extent feasible and safely possible). This requires leaders to find the appropriate balance between “Relationship Significance” and “Ease of Putting Online,” per the chart below (click here an article on this by John Dyer).

Essential Requirements for In-Person Meetings.

If you do meet for in-person events, be sure to follows these generally-accepted public health guidelines:

  1. Do not admit anyone who exhibits COVID- or flu-related symptoms.
  2. Take the temperature of everyone attending service and do not allow anyone with a temperature of over 100 degrees.
  3. Enforce mandatory mask policies.
  4. Enforce social distancing by ensuring family/household units do not stand, sit, or congregate next to other family units.
  5. Insist on no live singing.
  6. Insist on online giving.
  7. Place hand sanitizer stations throughout the church.
  8. Hold only one or two events per day at most (if multiple events are organized per week).
  9. Limit the number of people who can attend service to ensure safe social distancing.
  10. Limit the number of places people can congregate within the church.
  11. Perform a deep and thorough cleaning of the church after every event