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Virus changes church routines

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NASHVILLE (BP and local reports) — The COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak has forced many U.S. churches to seek out new ways of reaching their congregations, according to a new study of pastors.

LifeWay Research, a division of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville, asked Protestant pastors how the pandemic has impacted their congregations and what their plans are for the near future.

While nearly all pastors say their church held in-person worship services at the beginning of March, the situation had changed radically by the end of the month.

On the weekend of March 1, 99% of those surveyed said they gathered for worship, and 95% said they held services the next weekend.

However, by March 15 that number dropped to 64% and by March 22, only 11% of pastors surveyed said their churches gathered in person. On March 29, that number was down to seven percent.

Almost half of the pastors said they have already decided they will not meet in person for Easter. Three percent said they will have an in-person gathering no matter what.

A significant number said they are in a wait-and-see posture. Eighteen percent said they will have an in-person gathering unless authorities legally forbid it. Another 15% said they will have services if local authorities merely do not recommend against it.

Seven percent said they will have an in-person Easter gathering if, in their own judgement, they feel it is safe. One in 10 said they’re not sure.

As churches have moved away from in-person gatherings during the crisis, most were able to transition to some form of online video replacement.

Eight percent said they did not provide any video sermons or worship services this past month. By contrast, a fall 2019 survey of Protestant pastors found 41% of pastors at that time did not provide any video content for their congregation

Twenty-two percent of the surveyed pastors said their churches were already livestreaming worship services before the coronavirus pandemic hit, and they are continuing to do so. Firty-three percent said they don’t typically livestream their sermon or worship service, but they did so in the last month because of the coronavirus.

Another 27% said they didn’t livestream their service but did post a video sermon online in some form for their congregation to view at any time.

Fifty-five percent of the pastors said they’ve also moved their adult groups online, while six percent said they’ve continued to meet in person. Meanwhile, 40% say their groups have not met in any capacity during the coronavirus disruption.

The pastors also said the COVID-19 outbreak has brought both difficulties and opportunities to their congregations.

Most said they’ve seen church attendees help each other with tangible needs (87%) or meet coronavirus-related needs within the community (59%).

Fifty-five percent said an attendee at their church has been able to share the Gospel through this time, with four percent seeing someone make a commitment to follow Christ.

Forty-four percent said an attendee has counseled someone crippled with fear.

Three in 4 pastors said someone within their church has had their income impacted by reduced hours at work.

Forty-two percent said one of their church attendees has lost their job. Five percent of pastors say they have someone at their church who has been diagnosed with COVID-19.

The survey showed churches in the West (16%) and Northeast (13%) regions of the U.S. are more likely than those in the South (two percent) and Midwest (one percent) to have an attendee who has been diagnosed with COVID-19.

When asked for areas in which they are under the most pressure or ways in which they could use some support, the Protestant pastors said staying connected with their congregation is a concern (30%).

Pastors also said they worry about finances (26%), technological challenges of the current situation (16%), offering pastoral care from a distance (12%) and members without access to technology to help keep them connected (11%).

Only six percent said they are doing well and don’t have any current pressure points.

To download the report, visit tinyurl.com/corosurvey1.