Can meaningful church community be built online?
Making Space for Community—the second volume in a three-part series produced in partnership with Aspen Group—takes a closer look at the beliefs, desires and expectations people have about the spaces in which church happens. In this article, we’ll explore this new data to discover why Christians still lean toward in-person gatherings.
32% of Christians Would Be “Disappointed” if Their Church Was Solely Online
Other than a church building, are there environments where Christian communities could gather, worship and even thrive? Perhaps the most realistic alternative church location that Barna asked about in the survey is one many pastors and Christians are now quite familiar with: online.
Following the onset of COVID-19, digital options for church became essential. In the spring of 2020, when the pandemic response began, nearly all Protestant pastors (96%) told Barna they had begun streaming services. However, this may not be seen as desirable, compared to gathering in person in a physical church. In fact, 40 percent of Christians say they would be unlikely to attend if the internet became the sole gathering place for their church.
Negative emotions outweigh positive; even though one-quarter (25%) says they would be “hopeful” in this scenario, only 11 percent would be “excited” or “enthusiastic.” One-third (32%) would be “disappointed” if their congregation moved online, and 27 percent would feel “disconnected.” This disconnection, they assume, would manifest in the loss of members (44%) and the loss of relationships (32%).
Across a line of questioning about this topic, a pattern emerges, with only about one-quarter of Christians strongly agreeing that there are chances for spiritual and community growth online. Christians are not sure about the digital possibilities for forming community, building meaningful relationships, experiencing God and growing with Jesus.
Overall, Christians think online church would be different from meeting in a physical church, and 38 percent say their own experience would be worsened. Keep in mind, many of these perspectives likely reflect real-life experiments and experiences with online services in recent years.
Seven in 10 Christians Say Building Community Is More Meaningful in Person
Digging deeper, Barna asked respondents to indicate whether a range of specific church or ministry activities are more meaningful in person or online. Across this series, Christians overwhelmingly favor in-person interactions.
Among the most meaningful in-person church activities, according to Christians, we find services like children’s ministry (72%), meeting people’s physical needs (72%), welcoming visitors (71%), emotional support (71%) and ministry to the elderly (70%). Three in 10 Christians feel that listening to (31%) or learning from (31%) a sermon or message is “about the same” whether in person or online. This was the warmest response toward online options, which speaks mostly to the technological ease of sharing or streaming sermons digitally.
While Christians demonstrate an understanding that the Church transcends physical space, there is still a desire for the church building to be the central location of its gatherings and activity, over other possible forums for ministry. Not only that, 62 percent say they think that church buildings should stand out recognizably as a church, rather than blending into the surrounding community.
In our Making Space study, time and again, Christians affirm the value of and preference for the church gathering as a community—embodied, face to face, in a unique physical space.