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Online church likely is here to stay, researchers find

Because of COVID-19, more than three in four evangelical Protestants in the United States have experienced watching church online instead of in person. More important is that going forward, the majority who did now want to make online viewing part of their normal church experience.

These findings come from the new report “The Ripple Effect: Congregations, COVID and the Future of Church Life from Infinity Concepts and Grey Matter Research. The study, which included more than 1,000 U.S. evangelical Protestants, examines the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on church attendance and attitudes about the experience. Most notably, the study explores how evangelicals want to attend church in the future.

Nearly nine out of 10 evangelicals were attending church on at least a semi-regular basis before the outbreak of the pandemic. Among churchgoers, 89 percent stopped attending for at least a short time because of the pandemic, and more than three out of four viewed church services online as one of substitute for in-person attendance.

This experience with viewing church online led to a number of important developments.

“One statistic that really stands out to me from this study is that a surprisingly large number of evangelicals do not necessarily see superior advantages to attending in-person services,” said Mark Dreistadt, Infinity Concepts founder and president. “We found that 45 percent of those who experienced online church services now believe that worship online is equal or superior to the in-person experience in at least one of the eight areas we explored.”

The two areas in which online viewing was most likely to have a perceived advantage were their personal comfort (26 percent said) and their ability to experience different churches (24 percent).

For Catholics, the view is much the same, according to a Pew Research study. The Catholic church has lagged behind protestant churchs in offering online services but as of 2021, fully 73 percent of Catholic dioceses say they will continue to offer the option to congregants.

Much remains unknown about the lasting impact of online services as a substitute for in-person attendance. Grey Matter and Infinity Concepts hope their partnership on this research helps churches, denominations and ministry leaders think and plan strategically.

In an opinion piece on Christianity.com, Mel Walker makes the case for the importance of the church gathering together.

Walker, who is president of Vision For Youth, Inc., an international network of youth ministry, quoted Scripture to point out that the church needs to gather to fulfill its mission: (Hebrews 10:25). The Scriptures contain many examples of the importance of the church assembling together (Acts 12:12Acts 14:27Acts 15:30Acts 20:71 Corinthians 5:41 Corinthians 11:17-201 Corinthians 14:23, 26; James 2:2).

“The church may have moved online because of the current pandemic, and church leaders have gained a new appreciation for the importance of having a continuing presence in internet-based delivery systems,” he writes “but to truly function as a biblically-based church, the local community must gather.

Walker says that in the new world of Covid, churches must keep a strong presence online, using technology to communicate God’s Word to their people and to the community at large. “However, the future of the church will always need to gather to fulfill its God-given mission and functions,’ he stated.

–Alan Goforth | Metro Voice