Online services have expanded reach of churches during pandemic

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, online worship services were a new concept for many churches. Over the next nearly two years, however, churches have adapted and reached new people with the adoption of digital streaming.

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

“The distance to the nearest church 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 nearly half of Americans.”

In a previous Lifeway Research study of Protestant pastors conducted before the spread of COVID-19, 41% said they did not regularly live-stream any part of their church service or post the sermon online later. At the time of the survey, only about 1 in 4 (27%) said they had broadcast live 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. As of March 2020, Lifeway Research found that 92% of Protestant pastors reported providing some type of video sermon or online worship service. This climbed to 97% in April 2020.

More church members watching online

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

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

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 do not normally attend in person.

“It’s not surprising to see worshipers using online options to view a church service, but there are also those who weren’t worshipers who at least attended a church service during the pandemic,” McConnell said.

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

Among those most likely to say they watched religious services online during the pandemic, but do not normally attend church in person are young adults aged 18 to 34 (18% ) and African Americans (22%).

Churches were still unable to reach most Americans with the expansion of digital offerings during the pandemic, as 52% say they did not watch online services during the pandemic. Most of them (42%) say they haven’t watched online and normally don’t go to church in person. Another in 10 Americans (10%) say they normally attend church in person but did not watch a church service online during the pandemic.

“Church involvement is evolving,” said McConnell. “Some who were regular and in-person devotees before COVID-19 only consult online services today, others have never connected online despite the pandemic, and still others use both at times different. This change has created both challenges and opportunities for pastors and church leaders.

Veronica J. Snell