Yearbook survey reveals worship habits during pandemic

By James Deaton, managing editor for Brethren Press

Earlier this year, the Church of the Brethren Yearbook Office conducted a survey asking congregational leaders to weigh in on their worship habits during the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 300 Church of the Brethren congregations participated in the survey, representing more than a third of the close to 900 total number of congregations in the denomination.

The survey asked congregations about the various ways they worshiped, and to provide feedback on any online worship options they offered because of the pandemic. There were also questions related to the challenges congregations experienced in counting worship attendance.

Results confirm that a large percentage (69 percent) have worshiped in person, but have stopped and started in-person again at least once. Also, an overwhelming percentage of congregations have adapted to offer some form of online worship option. Of those congregations surveyed, 84 percent have worshiped online, whether it was livestreamed, pre-recorded for later viewing, or another hybrid method.

Examining online worship habits, the survey showed that almost 77 percent of responding congregations did not offer any online worship option prior to the beginning of the pandemic. When asked if they planned to continue offering online worship options in the future, a significant majority (72 percent) said they would do so on a regular basis.

There was not a predominant technology named when congregations were asked about platforms used for online worship. Zoom was used by 43 percent of responding congregations, Facebook by 47 percent, and YouTube by 45 percent.

How has the pandemic affected worship attendance? Most congregations saw a decrease in in-person attendance, but the availability of online worship has caused some to see an increase in overall attendance. In fact, 21 percent of those responding to the survey said that their online worship attendance has been somewhat more than their in-person attendance before COVID-19, and 8 percent said it was much more than their in-person attendance prior to the pandemic.

When asked about the makeup of those participating online, responding congregations revealed a diverse composition:
— 95 percent reported attendance by current members.
— 77 percent reported attendance by family/friends/colleagues of current members.
— 64 percent reported attendees living more than two hours from the church building.
— 57 percent reported attendance by family/friends/colleagues of the pastor.
— 56 percent reported attendance by former members.
— 48 percent reported attendance by people previously unconnected to the church
— 40 percent reported attendees from the local community.
— 26 percent reported attendance by people living outside the United States.
— 18 percent reported attendance by people interested in becoming members.

Counting worship attendance was a challenge for many congregations, given the need to provide some form of online worship option. Some congregations didn’t attempt to count online engagements for a variety of reasons. Those congregations that started using the streaming technologies frequently noted the inconsistencies among platforms in how viewing is tracked.

With Zoom, attendance is simpler to count, but it’s often difficult to tell how many people in a household are participating, with some family members floating in and out of view. Metrics for Facebook and YouTube are more complex. Those who used these two platforms often wondered what to do about “views” that last for a brief amount of time. Others weren’t sure how to handle views that occur after a worship service ends and it then continues to be viewed online.

In summary, many congregations responded to the pandemic by providing some form of online worship option, but tracking attendance was difficult for many reasons and some ended up just monitoring online engagements instead of attempting to quantify them.

The Yearbook Office continues to evaluate the survey’s responses, especially those related to counting worship attendance, as it prepares to send out its annual forms to congregations in January. Further instructions to congregations will be given at that time.

— The Church of the Brethren Yearbook staff are James Deaton, managing editor for Brethren Press, and Jim Miner, Yearbook specialist.


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