Television professionals who survived the past decade have made their peace with terms like “binging” and “time-shifting.”
But how, pray tell, can clergy embrace “worship-shifting”?
The coronavirus crisis has plunged pastors into digital technology while trying to replace analog community life with online worship, classes and fellowship forums. These changes have frustrated many, especially believers in ancient traditions built on rites requiring face-to-face contact. But many worshippers have welcomed online worship.
These changes have altered the “fundamental relationship that many young adults have with their churches,” said David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, which does research with a variety of religious groups. “We’re hearing about worship-shifting, as people use all the tech in their homes to fit services into their own schedules, just like everything else they watch on all those screens.
“This is another way people are using social media to renegotiate the role the church plays in the lives of their families.”
The question religious leaders are asking, of course, is how many people will return to their pews when “normal” life returns. But it may be several years before high-risk older believers decide it’s safe to return, even after vaccines become available. Younger members may keep watching their own local services, switch to high-profile digital flocks elsewhere or do both.
In talks with clients, Kinnaman said he is hearing denominational leaders and clergy say they believe that, in the next year or so, some churches will simply close their doors. Early in the pandemic the percentage of insiders telling Barna researchers they were “highly confident” their churches would survive was “in the high 70s,” he said.
“Now it’s in the 50s. … Most churches are doing OK, for now. But there’s a segment that’s really struggling and taking a hit, week after week.”
After reviewing several kinds of research — including patterns in finances and attendance — Kinnaman sent a shockwave through social-media channels with his recent prediction that one in five churches will close in the next 18 months.
In “mainline” churches, he is convinced this number will be one in three, in part because these rapidly aging Protestant denominations have lost millions of members — some up to 50% — since the 1960s. In descending order, by size, they are the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Episcopal Church, the American Baptist Churches USA, the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
All of this ecclesiastical drama is surrounded by sobering cultural trends.
In terms of demographics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (.pdf here) said the number of babies born during 2019 hit its lowest level in three decades, with America’s birthrate at 1.71 — well below a 2.1 “replacement rate.” The Brookings Institute recently predicted a “COVID baby bust” with up to a half million fewer births next year. That won’t help religious leaders replace aging Baby Boomers.
Then there is the continuing rise of the “nones,” or “religiously unaffiliated” Americans. Last year, the Pew Research Center reported that 26% of those polled identified as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.”
That trend is consistent with the new LifeWay Research “State of Theology” study stating that half of Americans believe many traditional religious doctrines are mere personal opinions. Thus, 52% affirm that Jesus was a “great teacher,” but not God. Also, the Bible is 100% accurate, according to 48% of those polled — the same percentage as those who think it contains helpful ancient myths that are not literally true.
Faith leaders want to address these kinds of trends, but the coronavirus crisis has made it impossible to avoid a related question: Can omnipresent digital screens help lonely, stressed, distracted Americans get married, raise children, face family funerals and, ultimately, wrestle with their own mortality?
“There’s no question,” said Kinnaman, “that social media has great power in the lives of young people. The question is whether that is enough to get them through all the challenges that they will face in life. …
“What will happen when all of these digital screens and social-media platforms stop serving as tools that we use and then turn into the foundations of how we live our lives? How does that affect what the church is and what it does?”