Tuesday, July 20, 2021
How Have Congregations Adapted to the Covid-19 Pandemic?: Findings from the FACT 2020 Survey
By Patricia Tevington, PhD
How have congregations adapted to the Covid-19 pandemic? Well, one way to answer this question is to ask them! And while we plan to do that systematically over the next five years, we do have some early insights into how churches have responded to Covid-19.
Beginning in 2000, the Faith Communities Today initiative launched a series of nationwide surveys exploring congregational life, working in partnership with denominational leaders. The questionnaires focus on issues such as worship, leadership, vitality, and demographics of congregations. The most recent national survey was conducted in 2020. All in all, more than 15,000 congregations across 80 denominations responded to our most recent survey.
Guess what else happened in 2020?
That’s right. By happenstance, data collection was in place when the pandemic began affecting the country as a whole. In other words, we had already started asking our questions about congregations when suddenly the whole landscape changed! Luckily, we were able to make some adjustments to our survey instrument in order to get some ears to the ground for? information. Specifically, we asked our respondents: “How has your congregation adapted to the Covid-19 pandemic?” Unlike other survey questions, which often present a list of answer choices, this question was open-ended. That is, the field was a blank space—respondents could answer in as little or as much detail as possible.
And answer they did! In total, we received more than 1,200 responses to this question. They varied in sentiment, length, and complexity—each congregation had its own experience. Yet, after reviewing each and every one, we are able to describe a few overall patterns. Below, we lay out a few of the themes articulated in these responses.
How are you doing? What are you doing?
Interestingly, a not insignificant number of respondents answered “How has your congregation adapted to the Covid-19 pandemic?” with sentiment. That is, they responded with their assessment of how well the congregation has managed in the face of the pandemic. “Pretty well.” One respondent wrote in response, “Don’t like it but rolled with it. Having changes forced on them let us remove some of the hindrances of the past.” Similarly, another respondent wrote, “It has been difficult, but we’ve been motivated to innovate and care for one another in old and new ways…” The majority of these responses could be characterized as pleasantly surprised—even hopeful. Of course, there were also those that demonstrated frustration, such as one respondent who said, “It’s been very difficult.” And another participant who simply stated, “Trying.”
By and large, when asked how the congregation adapted to the pandemic, most participants interpreted the question as asking for direct explanations of what they are “doing differently.” Thus, we were given insight into a wide range of innovative practices, as well as the triumphs and struggles inherent in some of these strategies.
Physical Closing and Modified Worship
The vast majority of our responses alluded to the fact that the pandemic forced a rapid change of pace for their congregational life. For one thing, many congregations physically closed their building. For some churches, this meant that life as they knew it came to a screeching halt. One respondent stated simply, “Closed until stay at home lifted.”
But in the face of this disruption, many churches responded with innovation. They implemented new safety measures, including personal protective equipment and enhanced cleaning. One respondent explained, “They space out during worship. Some choose to wear masks, which are available for everyone.” Some churches relocated their worship services to allow for more social distance, such as to larger buildings on campus or, more commonly, outside. A participant explained, “We were able to secure an FM transmitter so we have drive-in services on Sunday morning…” Similarly, several churches offered more services than before in order to space congregants out in the building. Further, many churches modified their worship services in some way—such as limiting singing or changing communion distribution.
Many churches offered a range of options for their congregants, recognizing different levels of risk and comfort. One particularly innovative congregation explained that they developed a dress code to signal worshipper’s level of precaution to one another. The participant wrote, “We developed a bracelet system for members to wear and identify each other. Red – no contact please. Yellow – fist bump only. Green – hug, handshake.”
Unsurprisingly, the most common innovation was the adoption of online services and activities. “Overnite [sic] we developed online worship,” a participant noted. They added, “Been a fascinating exercise in change and growth.”
Many churches took to livestreaming their services on a platform such as YouTube or Facebook. Zoom was also adopted to facilitate participation in regular worship services and other congregation activities. A respondent explained, “We have moved all meetings and social groups to Zoom. Our worship service and prayer time are streamed on Facebook Live.” Alternatively, some congregations distributed their weekly message with a prerecorded video.
While many churches were pleased with how their congregants adapted to this new arrangement—”We were able to move to online only worship service with minimal effort, despite never having done it before,” one respondent explained—it was not without its difficulties. Attendance at virtual services varied, sometimes higher than pre-Covid numbers but more often lower. Engagement with congregational life was necessarily different. Further, some congregations and demographics adapted better to this shift than others. Churches already in liminal states, for instance, faced difficulty in transition to online worship. One participant explained, “The church remains locked and closed until business is resumed. It’s a small church without live-streaming as we out-source four pastors monthly.” Also notably, many respondents alluded to a digital divide, wherein the shift to online worship “left behind” many older and/or less technologically-savvy congregants. “There are issues with livestreaming and getting those members of the congregation who do not use technology to participate in the services,” on respondent recounted.
Further, virtual platforms were not a panacea for all congregational activities. Even if churches were successful in finding ways to offer Sunday worship, many were still forced to delay or cancel other activities. As one respondent stated, “canceled all church-sponsored activities until June… canceled Sunday School indefinitely…”
Please note that the above categories are not mutually exclusive. A congregation could offer both virtual services, as well as socially distanced services.
Communication and Fellowship
Alongside various safety precautions adopted to combat the pandemic came notable social isolation. As daily routines were altered, people saw less of one another as they worked from home, had their groceries delivered, and paused many of their social activities. Crucially, churches provide not just an opportunity for Sunday worship but friendship, family, and fellowship. Thus, the pandemic also affected congregational life by limiting opportunities for gathering and participating in communal life.
Many participants noted this struggle in their open-ended responses. What’s more, many of them told us what they did to alleviate social isolation and maintain a sense of community in the face of Covid-19 and its related shut downs. One respondent reflected that as a result of the pandemic, “Connections to our most vulnerable population has decreased (probably).” In addition to church leadership offering visits and pastoral care via telephone or online presence, many congregations instituted new ministries to keep in touch with congregants. For instance, one church redirected their volunteer teams to reach out to the congregation, saying, “The Safety and Security Team and the Parish Care Team divided up the list of our parishioners and each person gets a call from both teams every ten days.” Likewise, churches thoughtfully considered the needs and communication abilities of their members and provided outreach in numerous capacities. Interestingly, a surprising number of congregations utilized “snail mail” to keep in contact with older and less technologically savvy congregants. “Reaching out to those who do not have internet and providing either DVD’s or printed versions. Keeping in touch by phone and mail with those who need it,” as one congregation explained.
Congregations also supported their vulnerable members in the face of the pandemic not just through communication, but through tangible services. Many noted offering food and financial assistance, for instance. “We provide grocery pick up and delivery. We stock a blessing box. We provide financial assistance for groceries, gas, rent and other items,” one respondent recounted.
In addition to the care and dedication churches showed to their own congregants, many also looked outside their membership. Seeing opportunities for service, many congregations “stepped up to the plate” and provided outreach and service. One congregation explained, “We changed our mission and outreach efforts to serve our community and those in need.” Tangibly, this sometimes meant the creation of new services. For instance, one respondent explained, “A group of sewers have been making masks for local senior housing facilities, EMS, and…[our] Health Care System.”
Finally, many congregations found creative ways to continue to provide charitable services for their community, even in the face of the new social distancing and pandemic reality. A respondent noted the innovation one ministry had taken up and the impact it had on the community, saying, “Our food pantry began delivering – we have provided groceries for 726 individuals (excluding repeats) since mid-March.”
For some churches, they reportedly thrived during the pandemic, with the change of pace introducing them to new ways of ministry, giving, and attracting attendants that will be beneficial and adopted by the congregation for the long-haul. For others, Covid-19 and its associated lockdowns were detrimental to congregational life in the short-term— and they worry that it will have spillover effects even when things “go back to normal” such as in attendance, engagement, or giving patterns. It remains to be seen just what the long-term consequences of the pandemic will be. What we have seen so far, though, is that most congregations found a way to continue their core mission, maintain fellowship with their members, and serve the larger community—even in the face of great difficulty.