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Barna: Online Prayer May Now Be Key to Building Faith

online prayer

As churches figure out the post-pandemic “new normal,” one key to building faith and connections may be online prayer times. That’s a conclusion from the Barna Group’s latest study in its “State of Digital Church” project.

In the new journal Five Questions Every Church Leader Should Ask About Digital Prayer, Barna, partnering with Alpha, reveals that more than two-thirds (68 percent) of Christians express openness to participating in prayer time during online worship. Yet only 28 percent report actually being involved with a digital prayer service during the pandemic, indicating that outreach opportunities abound for churches. 

Barna on Online Prayer: Openness to Prayer Opens Doors

Almost half (49 percent) of Christians who participate in digital prayer gatherings indicate having positive experiences, saying they “often” feel God’s presence. Even 20 percent of non-practicing Christians report meeting virtually with a group of people at least monthly to pray. And 43 percent of people who pray in any format say the practice helps them feel “connected,” which is a key need during the current period of isolation and social distancing.

Although in-person prayer gatherings were the norm pre-pandemic, only 37 percent of Christians say they believe group prayer experiences are less impactful when they’re digital. Both preference and availability could affect people’s responses, Barna notes. “Where engagement with digital prayer or other aspects of COVID-era church life lag,” the report states, “we’re likely observing a lack of church options, a lack of congregant participation, or both.”

By adding and strengthening digital formats for prayer, says Barna, churches and ministries also might be able to “provide an onramp toward deeper engagement with church life at large.”

Strategies for Boosting Online Prayer Gatherings

According to the new study, church leaders can launch or grow their online prayer times by targeting groups who’ve been “early adopters” of the practice. These include:

Millennials and Gen Z Christians—About one-fifth of younger Christians say they take part in small- or large-group digital prayer times at least monthly. And more than half (53 percent) of Gen Z Christians say they’ve participated in digital prayer gatherings during 2020.

Non-white Christians—Half of Black Christians say they’ve attended a digital prayer gathering in the past year, and 44 percent indicate being “very open” to participating in prayer during online worship. Additionally, about half of all Christians who belong to racial or ethnic minority groups say they take part in digital prayer gatherings with some frequency.

Practicing Christians—Almost half (46 percent) of practicing believers say they’re “very open” to online-prayer opportunities during virtual worship. And more than one in three (36 percent) report actually participating in digital prayer gatherings during the pandemic.

Tech-friendly churchgoers—According to the Barna report, “Seven in 10 churched adults with high digital openness report praying in online groups with some frequency, and many do so at least weekly (47 percent in small groups; 32 percent in large groups).”

People in these four groups, Barna says, can serve as “a solid foundation of attendees” who engage in corporate online prayer times “while also extending invitations to churchgoers who are less likely to find their way into this setting.”

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Stephanie Martin, a freelance journalist, has worked in Christian publishing for 28 years. She’s active at her church in Lakewood, Colorado, where she lives with her family.