Ontario Conference’s Communications department wanted to uncover whether or not being pushed to operate virtually had shifted members’ view of what constitutes church. Therefore, we sent out a 10-item survey via Survey Monkey to church leaders and members re their online church experience since March and view of the online forum’s continued role as churches slowly start reopening.
A link to the survey was sent electronically to Ontario Conference directors, support staff, pastors and local church leaders within Ontario Conference, who distributed it to church members within their networks. Most questions were multiple choice and asked responders to pick one answer, except one (Q. 8), which allowed several responses. Questions 1 to 9 also allowed an “other” category for additional comments. The final question, on what we should continue doing from this era of church, was open-ended. The survey was open from July 29 to August 27, with a French version created and distributed.
The response rate was promising for future surveys, as 762 individuals completed the English survey and 39 completed the French survey.
These results are based on the English survey, with French survey results generally similar. Any significant differences from the French survey respondents are noted.
Q. 1 How frequently did you watch online worship services on Sabbaths before the pandemic?
The first question established what members’ online viewing practices were before COVID-19.
A majority, 28.63%, watched online services weekly. The next highest percentages were never, at 26.25%, and once or twice a year, at 13.19%. Some respondents stated that they attended church physically but watched other services in the afternoon or evening. Others said they watched online services if they were sick, stuck at home due to bad weather or otherwise prohibited. One admitted to watching online services “when someone told [me] of an electrifying sermon.” While most members were not used to watching services online weekly, nearly 75% had watched services online before COVID-19.
Q. 2 Which online services do you normally follow each week?
The second question tackled their current online viewing practices. Overall, members were loyal to their home churches, with 52.86% choosing to watch their local church service. When they did venture away from home, they watched services from Adventist churches in the U.S. (16.2%) or overseas (8.10%) more often than Ontario (3.32%) or other Canadian (1.73%) churches. Like in pre-COVID times, some chose to watch their home services in the morning and others in the afternoon or evening. Respondents frequently cited the ability to tune into services globally as a blessing of the pandemic.
One especially intriguing comment was:
“I was watching Kel Mitchell in April and May, found Amazing Adventures (Pastor Doug) for my son, Breath of Life for myself and my wife, and some SDA YouTube channels from Australia/NZ youth for my teen daughter.”
Q. 3 Will you continue watching online services once churches reopen?
Question number three aimed to find out whether or not the uptick in online church viewing would last. Only 15.73% of respondents said, “not likely”; 46.13%, said, “absolutely” and 38.13% said, “sometimes,” indicating that online church is not a fad.
French respondents varied from English here, with 38.46% saying they would “absolutely” continue to tune in online, 30.77% saying “sometimes,” and 30.77% saying “not likely.”
Q. 4 What have you found most challenging about having church online?
Most respondents, 34.13%, said, “nothing.” The next two highest categories were “too many services to choose from” (16.13%) and “technical difficulties connecting with online services” (14.93%). Some other challenges cited in the comments were lack of personal contact/interaction, lengthy services and Zoom etiquette issues like people interrupting by mistake or forgetting to mute their mics.
Here are a few insightful comments, expressing the gamut of views on online services:
“Our online services, including Sabbath School, have run very smoothly, and we have enjoyed them and been blessed. However, while they were a blessing in these difficult times, it will be good to get back to church and fellowship, whenever it is safe to do so.”
“I work during COVID, sitting in front of a computer five days a week. The last thing I need is a Zoom service.”
“I enjoy [online church]. I watch in my backyard where neighbours can hear the service.”
Q. 5 What have you appreciated the most from having church online?
The fifth question determined respondents’ perception of the benefits of online church.
Most respondents (31.61%) cited the convenience of church at home as the greatest benefit of online church. Coming in a close second was the variety of services (22.3%), followed by not having to dress up and travel to church (17.13%). Respondents also enjoyed spending more time in nature and, one said, “learning to be in the presence of the Lord outside of church.”
Some additional comments on what they appreciated included:
“That my family [members] who do not go to church participate.”
“Being able to connect with isolated members who live far from the church and rarely attend.”
“Nothing hinders me, not illness, not weather, not time. I watch service every Sabbath.”
Q. 6 Which statement most closely describes your Sabbath experience the last few months?
Question six delved deeper into what the Sabbath had looked like for our church members since March 21. Here, the top three responses were “I’ve been spending more time with my family” (20.29%), “I’ve been experiencing a deeper relationship with God” (18.44%) and “I’m finally enjoying a Sabbath rest” (17.11%). Coming in a close fourth was “I’ve been feeling lonely and disconnected from my church family” (13.13%). Respondents noted several benefits, but many admitted missing the in-person experience.
Varying from English respondents here, 33.33% of French respondents said they were experiencing a deeper relationship with God.
Additional comments included:
“While it has been busy for us as we are very involved in planning and executing the Zoom service, it has been nice to relax and rest quietly on Sabbath afternoon.”
“Excellent online study with my church, excellent Sabbath school with my church, finally attending afternoon church programs.”
“I am enjoying a variety of church services from Ontario, the U.S. and the Caribbean. My child is getting a variety for Sabbath School. Time is less rushed and more relaxed.”
On the other hand, respondents said:
“I miss the social aspect of church after the service: potlucks, afternoon hikes and visiting.”
“[My Sabbath experience has been] strange and hollow.”
“While experiencing a deeper relationship with God and enjoying a Sabbath rest, I do feel lonely and disconnected from my Church family.”
Q. 7 What do you miss most about in-person services?
Question seven touched specifically on the most significant adjustments people had to make over the past several months. Sixty-three percent of respondents missed fellowship and interaction the most. In a distant second, 12.27% said they were not missing anything, with another 8.05% missing a sense of community/belonging. Several also mentioned missing other elements we take for granted, like singing in the choir/praise team or congregational singing.
Additional comments included:
“All of the above still present online, except physical contacts like hugs.”
“Seeing those that are not connecting.”
“Live service (being amongst people praising God cannot be replicated in an online format, fellowship and interaction (Sabbath lunches-quintessential part of our church culture).”
Q. 8 Which online programs you have engaged with besides the mid-day service on a regular basis (e.g., weekly or biweekly)? Check all that apply.
This question looked more deeply into the types of programs respondents engaged with regularly during the pandemic. The majority, 63.65%, of respondents reported that they attended online Sabbath School regularly. Next came prayer meeting (47.94%), Bible study (37.28%) and committee and other meetings (34.62%). Some other programs people engaged with, as revealed in the comments, included
workouts with the youth,
Saturday evening socials with Bible games and sharing,
discourses on race and social issues,
medical missionary training,
online seminars related to prophecy and application of current events to scriptures,
100 days of prayer,
Sabbath morning sharing and caring sessions facilitated by Maria McClean, Ontario Conference Health and Prayer Ministries director,
Women’s ministry sessions,
Adventurers and Pathfinders, and
Acoustic Energy or other music programs.
Q. 9 What is your age range?
The next question, on age range, was meant to determine any major differences from one age group to another, and who was mostly responding to this survey. Nearly tied as the most-represented age groups were 65+ (24.93%, 189 individuals) and 45-54 (24.67%, 187 individuals). They were followed by 55-64 (19.26%, 146 individuals) and 35-44 (18.6%, 141 individuals). There was a smaller representation of Millennials, 25-34 (6.60%, 50 individuals), and Gen Zs, 18-24 (2.51%, 19 individuals) and Alphas, 0-12 (0.66%, five individuals).
Differences noted according to age group included:
Forty percent of children, ages 0-12, said they were not keeping the Sabbath as they would like to, compared to 9.68% of general respondents. Four out of five (80%) answered “not likely,” while 1/5 (20%) said they would “sometimes” tune in online once churches reopened.
A representative comment was: “Online church is not cool, in my opinion.”
The majority (36.84%) of 18-24 year-olds described their church experience as “I’ve been feeling lonely and missing my church family,” compared to the average of 13.13%. Moreover, 73.68% of this group, the majority, missed fellowship and interaction the most, compared to 63.06% of all respondents.
In the 35-44 category, 52.9% said they would “absolutely” continue watching services online once churches reopen, versus 46.13% of all respondents. They were also more likely to say they had been spending more quality time with their family (31.91% vs. 20.29% of all respondents). In additional comments, 35-44 year-olds also seemed the most positive about continuing church and other programs online.
The 55-64 year-olds were slightly less likely than the average to say they were “not likely” to continue with online services once churches reopened (13.29% vs. 15.73%). When asked what they found most challenging about virtual church, 42.66% of them said “nothing,” compared to 34.13% of all respondents.
Finally, seniors (65+) were a rich source of info. Pre-COVID, they generally attended their local church weekly. However, many were accustomed to watching online or televised church services (e.g., Doug Batchelor, 3ABN, Hope TV), thus handled the transition reasonbly well. They had the most robust Sabbath School (73.92%) and prayer meeting (65%) attendance of any group. Also, 27.57% (vs. 18.44%) described their recent Sabbath experience as “I’ve been experiencing a deeper relationship with God.”
Q. 10 Is there anything from this period of online church that you think we should continue doing, even after the pandemic crisis is no longer as pressing?
The final question uncovered what we as a church could learn from our pandemic experience that would help us be more effective in ministry moving forward. More than half, 64%, of respondents answered this question. Their comments typically fell into the following categories:
Keep streaming church services as an option for people who can’t attend church for various reasons –e.g., weather, illness, distance—and as an outreach tool.
Continue with online video chat conferences for small groups to promote attendance.
Continue to prioritize online ministry, including digital evangelism. Staying active on YouTube, Instagram and other platforms can engage children/youth and provide them with leadership opportunities.
Keep church services shorter, with options beyond the traditional service format, e.g., panel discussions and online interactive options, included.
The Conference’s Day of Worship was well-received, and several respondents asked for the Conference to provide more of this and other types of programming.
Prayer meeting, Sabbath School and weekly Bible study have thrived in this climate, and should also continue online.
Committee meetings should also continue online for convenience.
Members appreciated the prayer line and prayer services—i.e., Sabbath morning sharing and caring sessions—offered from Ontario Conference and wished them to continue.
Churches should pool resources, with a central location for people to find different types of high-quality programs offered by various churches.
Some additional comments included:
“Some people might never attend a physical service but join online. The goal should not be to get everyone back to the buildings but to have everyone stay connected (e.g., via small groups) and enriched in their worship experience.”
“Teach elderly church members how to use tech. Some of us don’t want to dress up anymore.”
“Find ways to continue a live stream meant specifically for online churchgoers. A stream that goes beyond just recording what’s happening in church. One that specifically engages online churchgoers much like it is now vs. before COVID.”
“Please continue to broadcast services as people who are not members are joining the services. Some persons who have not entered the church are asking for baptism.”
“We should perfect our local media ministries in our churches and marry our media ministries with our outreach and community service to attract and engage those outside the church seeking answers.”
“Some people REALLY do not enjoy the online environment and want NOTHING to do with it.”
“Have some programs centred around empowering men, youth mentorship and leadership in the home. Target age 15-60 yrs. Also, young adults and men.”
Some other key takeaways from this survey included:
The call for more quality programming for children, who are struggling with the online church format. Churches with thriving programs for children could advertise them to other churches and provide some coaching for other churches to expand their virtual children’s ministry.
The need to target 18-24 year-olds. Young adults most strongly expressed feeling isolated during COVID. Programs that allow them to socialize within safety constraints and programs tackling mental health challenges that may have arisen during this time.
The promotion of small groups for all ages, both online and offline, as a means of post-pandemic ministry. For more on how to start a small group ministry, click here.
The need for more technical training and resources. One track would be church AV/media/communications teams needing support to produce high-quality online programs and engage in digital evangelism (click here for some recent training from Ontario Conference Communications—watch all four sessions if you can!). Another would be seniors or others needing help connecting with virtual church programs and initiatives.
The call for more online programs that really meet the needs of church members and their surrounding communities, such as social justice panels, men’s ministry initiatives and family life programs. For more on how to transform our churches to be more relevant, sign up for our Sept. 11-13 Urban Mission Convention here.
Overall, the survey reveals that the last several months have been both difficult and rewarding. For some members, inconveniences of online worship, including lack of fellowship, have been hard to overcome. For many others, this time has helped them know God and their families on a deeper level.
Whatever your experience has been, Matthew 5:14-16 reminds us, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (ESV)
Since March, we have been pushed to let our light shine in new and sometimes uncomfortable ways. But as we have been stretched, we have grown, and the survey indicates that as we continue to adapt to new realities, we can thrive as individuals and as a church.