In the age of the 24-7 news cycle, American attention is in constant demand—with notifications coming every hour, time of quiet and solitude is rare. But pastor and author Rich Villodas believes that this high-attention state may be dangerous for church leaders and their congregants.
In recent ChurchPulseWeekly episodes, Villodas and podcast host Carey Nieuwhof discuss an alternative way to live: the hope that churches and leaders can model lives of contemplation.
Churches Need to Look Beyond Sunday Services
Although almost a year of the pandemic has passed, many churches are only providing one option for worship. Recent Barna research on the hybrid church experience found that six in ten (60%) churched adults say that services have been the only online option offered by their church.
While Nieuwhof sympathizes with the plight of exhausted pastors, he cautions against a “slow slide into less and less effectiveness.” Instead, he and Villodas suggest more ways for churches to connect with individuals.
For Villodas’ church, New Life Fellowship, the isolation of the pandemic means that more personal outreach was essential. To make sure no congregant is left behind, his board of leaders has appointed lay deacons to check in with members on a personal level.
Small groups have been another means for providing fellowship, and Villodas has seen how they meet needs ranging from spiritual to financial. “I love hearing two weeks after the fact it happened that someone had a need, and a group of people who’ve been walking together for months or years have taken care of that need,” he says.
Congregations Seek Prayer and Contemplation, Despite Distraction
Recent data from a Barna collaboration with Alpha indicate that congregations desire more ways to pray in community. Savannah Kimberlin, Barna Group’s Director of Published Research, reports that digital group prayer is a “glimmer of hope” for churches: “There’s a general warmth towards prayer… younger generations especially love prayer and the intimate, emotional connectedness that they feel to God during prayer.”
For Villodas, online prayer meetings have become a crucial means of ministry, with members both new and old attracted to digital prayer. He suggests that “lots of people don’t know how to pray, and they need someone to model it and hold the space for them.” For individuals who are uncertain about a walk with God, group prayer can help bring them in closer.
However, Villodas worries that distracted attention may take away from church events, with individuals on the other end of a Zoom call distracted in ways that the pastor cannot see. To combat distraction, he suggests that pastors implement visual engagement in their content. “We’re in an image saturated world,” so contemplation of images can be a crucial communication tactic.
Learning to Think Theologically
As American politics continue to be polarized, Villodas encourages churches to cultivate God-centered—not politically-centered—thinking. Scripture does not fall neatly along partisan lines. “The Bible is not a systematic textbook that gives people all the answers that they want,” notes Villodas. Thus, it can be a crucial antidote to polarized thinking.
He warns of the dangers of blind spots in church traditions, which can remove important nuance from the conversation. Thinking theologically is challenging, Villodas shares. “It takes time and lots of questions and patience and conversation. And in a swiping, scrolling, superficial world, those things are hard to come by.”
To combat this tendency, Villodas urges leaders to be engaged intellectually. “I absolutely think that our intellectual formation is tied to our spiritual formation. And it’s just another way in which that we are loving God with our minds.” By reading and wrestling regularly with ideas, pastors can be loving God more fully.
Learning to Live a Contemplative Life
However, that level of time and patience is challenging for American pastors to find. Recent Barna data show that only 21 percent of pastors say they’re satisfied with the time that they spend developing themselves, and only half (55%) read Scripture daily outside of sermon prep.
But while finding the time to read the Word may be difficult, Villodas says it’s crucial to the Christian tradition of spiritual formation. He shares the advice he received early on from Pete Scazzero: a pastor’s job description should read “contemplative” and “someone who beholds the beauty of God through scripture, in silence, in creation and for the sake of just beholding God, not getting anything out of it.”
To stay grounded in faith this year, Villodas encourages pastors to view time spent in prayer and contemplation as a “keystone habit” for daily life. “There’s just so much chaos in the world right now that if we’re not leading ourselves well and monitoring our own souls, we’re going to have a hard time leading faithfully.”
About the Research
The research presented from Barna’s 2020 journal Six Questions About the Future of the Hybrid Church Experience was conducted online from September 1 to 15, 2020. In total, Barna surveyed 1,302 U.S. adults. The sample error for this study is ±2.5 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.
The research presented from Barna’s upcoming journal Five Questions Every Church Leader Should Ask About Digital Prayer consisted of one online study conducted September 1–15, 2020 with 1,302 U.S. adults ages 8–75. The margin of error for this sample is plus or minus 2.5 percent at the 95 percent confidence level. Researchers set quotas to obtain a minimum read-able sample by a variety of demographic factors and weighted the two samples (general population and churched adults) by gender, ethnicity, region, age, education, household income, faith and church attendance history to reflect their natural presence in the population (using U.S. Census Bureau data and historical Barna data for comparison). Partly by nature of using an online panel, these respondents are slightly more educated than the average American, but Barna researchers adjusted the representation of college-aged individuals in the weighting scheme accordingly.
U.S. adults are U.S. residents 18 and older.
Practicing Christians identify as Christian, agree strongly that faith is very important in their lives and have attended church within the past month.
Churched adults / churchgoers have been to church in the last six months.
Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.
© Barna Group, 2021