During the past year of upended church gatherings, what did you miss the most about “regular,” in-person worship services? If you’re like the Christian churchgoers surveyed by the Barna Group, tactile actions—or “items often difficult to replicate digitally”—top your list.
For the study, titled “What Churchgoers Missed Most About In-person Services,” Barna asked 600 U.S. adults about pandemic-related disruptions at their churches. People say they miss receiving communion the most (24 percent), followed closely by socializing with other congregants before and after worship (23 percent). Other activities making the list include listening to a live service or homily (21 percent), the chance to connect with like-minded people (19 percent), greeting others or passing the peace during service (17 percent), Sunday school/small groups/Bible study (10 percent), corporate prayer (eight percent), and having childcare during the service (four percent).
Churchgoers’ Answers Vary by Generation
When categories are grouped into social and nonsocial aspects of attending in-person worship, 85 percent of people admit they miss social aspects of gathering (such as corporate prayer, greeting and socializing), while 90 percent say they miss nonsocial aspects (such as receiving communion and listening to live sermons).
Based on generational breakdowns of the data, Baby Boomers are more likely to miss taking communion (31 percent) and socializing (27 percent), while Millennial churchgoers are more likely to miss the chance to connect with like-minded people (23 percent) and listening to live music (20 percent).
“In a season that continues to force church leaders to shift, innovate and stretch, it’s important for pastors to continue checking in with their people on a regular basis to see how congregants are doing and what they’re missing or needing from their church experience,” researchers note. “Gathering information is vital for church leaders to know how to effectively engage with and disciple the people in their care.”
What This Means for the Future
These findings about the importance of participatory worship may point to long-term implications for congregations and what they offer. Because fewer survey respondents mention missing in-person educational opportunities, studies and classes might continue trending toward virtual options.
“Small groups can be replicated online, and they are probably not coming back” to in-person strength, says Bill Wilson, founder and director of the Center for Healthy Churches. He tells Baptist News Global, “Many churches have seen their small-group and Sunday school attendance increase when they count online and in-person participants.”
Digital options allow “many more people” to participate in church activities, Wilson adds. “Often people can’t come because they are out of town or medically unable to attend. One woman told me she has one hour when she can be at church, and she wanted that hour to be worship. She could go to Sunday school online.”
On the other hand, says Wilson, “We know that 70 percent of communication is nonverbal. When I am in a room with other people who are being engaged in worship, there is a feeling in that space that they miss and can’t get virtually.”
For church leaders, the pandemic is a valuable reminder that worship isn’t a one-size-fits-all experience. “COVID has raised awareness that we need to examine everything we do through the lens of relevance to those around us and to our own people,” Wilson says.