By Aaron Earls
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Churchgoers aren’t attending yet at pre-pandemic levels, but most say they value gathering with their congregation and are anxious to do so when the threat of COVID-19 ends.
A study of 1,000 Protestant churchgoers in the U.S. from Nashville-based Lifeway Research found, when COVID-19 is no longer an active threat to people’s health, 91% plan to attend in-person worship services at least as often as they did before the coronavirus pandemic. That includes almost a quarter (23%) who plan to attend more than they did previously.
Few regular churchgoers say they will attend less than before (6%), rarely attend (2%) or stop attending in-person services completely (1%).
Almost all churchgoers (94%) say they greatly value the times they can attend worship services in person with others from their church. Few (4%) disagree.
“Two-thirds of pastors whose churches were open for in-person worship in January saw attendance of less than 70% of their January 2020 attendance,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research. “Many of these pastors are wondering if those who haven’t returned ever will. Nine in 10 churchgoers plan to when it is safe to do so.”
Young adult churchgoers, those 18 to 29, are the most likely to say they will attend church more often after COVID-19 than they did before (43%).
Evangelicals by belief are more likely than those without evangelical beliefs to say they will attend more after the pandemic (28% to 19%).
Almost 9 in 10 churchgoers (87%) stuck with the same church throughout the pandemic. Few say they switched to another church in the same area (5%), switched churches because of a move (3%), or no longer have a church they consider their own (5%).
Among this group of Protestant churchgoers who attended at least once a month in 2019 and who still have a church, 56% say they attended worship services four times or more in January 2020 prior to the spread of COVID-19. Another 30% attended two or three times, while 7% say they attended once.
In January 2021, however, 51% didn’t attend any in-person services—22% said it was because none were offered by their church and 30% chose not to attend their church’s in-person services. Around 1 in 5 (21%) say they attended in person four times or more. Slightly fewer (18%) attended two to three times and 7% attended once.
More than 4 in 5 churchgoers (83%) say they watched a livestream of a church service instead of attending in person at least once in 2020. Far more watched via livestream last year than said the same when asked before the pandemic.
In a September 2019 Lifeway Research study, 4% of churchgoers said they had watched a live video stream of a church service instead of attending in person 18 times or more in the last year, compared to 32% now. Two years ago, almost half of churchgoers (47%) said they hadn’t replaced an in-person service with a livestreamed one, while only 14% say the same today.
“Churches livestreaming services during COVID-19 has made this experience commonplace among churchgoers,” said McConnell. “Despite the increased exposure to this concept, however, relatively few have made this a weekly habit.”
Among churchgoers surveyed, 7 in 10 (71%) consider themselves to be a “devout Christian with a strong faith.” Around a quarter (23%) say they consider themselves a Christian, but not particularly devout. Fewer say they are a Christian but are not currently practicing the faith (5%).
Most churchgoers (54%) say the events of 2020 caused them to grow closer to God, including 27% who say they became much closer. Another 39% say they stayed about the same. Far fewer (7%) say they grew more distant.
Currently, 11% of churchgoers say they are questioning their faith, while 87% disagree.
“The faith of most churchgoers remains resilient despite a year filled with much uncertainty and fewer options for meeting in person with others from church,” said McConnell. “During these trying times, churchgoers were almost eight times more likely to relate to God more than less.”
Younger churchgoers (18 to 29) are the most likely to say they became much closer to God (37%), but also the most likely to say they are currently questioning their Christian faith (24%).
Thinking back on January 2021, few churchgoers say they lived life close to normal. Around 1 in 10 (9%) say they had a normal number of contacts with few precautions. Slightly more say they had a normal number of contacts with people outside their home but with precautions (13%). Another 1 in 10 (10%) say had limited contact with others but took few precautions.
A plurality of churchgoers (36%) say they had a limited number of contacts with precautions (36%). Around a quarter (26%) say they only had very brief contacts such as essential shopping. For 7% of churchgoers, they had no contact with anyone in January.
For most churchgoers, the yearlong pandemic has brought some tangible challenges, including 8% who say they have been diagnosed with COVID-19.
More than 2 in 5 (42%) say someone in their church has been diagnosed with the disease and 18% say a fellow church member died from it. A previous Lifeway Research study, found 88% of Protestant pastors say a church attendee has been diagnosed with COVID-19 and 29% say a member died from COVID-19.
Around 1 in 7 churchgoers (15%) say they have lost income because of reduced hours at work, while 6% say they lost their job.
On a more positive note, many churchgoers have helped each other and reached out beyond their church. Around 2 in 5 (41%) say they have checked on others in their church, while a similar number 38% say people in their church have checked on them. One in 10 say others in their church have helped them with tangible needs. For 15%, the pandemic period has provided an opportunity to share the gospel with someone.
“Like other Americans, churchgoers have seen the effects of COVID-19 first-hand,” said McConnell. “Many churchgoers have also felt the benefits of being part of a church as members checked on them or provided assistance.”
Aaron Earls is a writer for Lifeway Christian Resources.
The online survey of 1,000 American Protestant churchgoers was conducted Feb. 5-18, 2021 using a national, pre-recruited panel. Respondents were screened to include those who identified as Protestant/non-denominational and attended religious services at least once a month in 2019. Quotas and slight weights were used to balance gender, age, region, ethnicity and education to more accurately reflect the population.
The completed sample is 1,000 surveys. The sample provides 95% confidence that the sampling error from the panel does not exceed plus or minus 3.2%. This margin of error accounts for the effect of weight. Margins of error are higher in sub-groups. Comparisons are made to a Lifeway Research survey of Protestant churchgoers Sept. 20-27, 2019 using the same methodology.
Evangelical beliefs are defined using the NAE Lifeway Research evangelical beliefs research definition based on respondent beliefs. Respondents are asked their level of agreement with four separate statements using a four-point, forced choice scale (strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, strongly disagree).
Those who strongly agree with all four statements are categorized as having evangelical beliefs.
- The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.
- It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
- Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin
- Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.
About Lifeway Research
Lifeway Research is a Nashville-based, evangelical research firm that specializes in surveys about faith in culture and matters that affect churches.
About Lifeway Christian Resources
In operation since 1891, Lifeway Christian Resources is one of the leading providers of Christian resources, including Bibles, books, Bible studies, Christian music and movies, VBS, and church supplies, as well as camps and events for all ages. Lifeway is the world’s largest provider of Spanish Bibles. Headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee, Lifeway receives no denominational funding and operates as a self-supporting nonprofit.