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Church attendance, volunteering rebounds but remains below pre-pandemic levels: report

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Worship attendance and volunteering in churches has recovered to some degree since the COVID-19 pandemic, but figures remain below pre-pandemic levels, according to a new report. 

The report titled “Back to Normal? The Mixed Messages of Congregational Recovery Coming Out of the Pandemic” was released Sunday as part of the Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations Project funded by Lilly Endowment and led by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford International University for Religion and Peace.

Previous surveys were conducted in the summer of 2021, the winter of 2021-2022 and the spring of 2022. 

The study is based on 4,809 responses to online survey questions collected from an “over-sampling of 20 denominational groups” and “a random sampling of congregations in other denominations” between January and May, with an estimated margin of error of +/- 3% at the 95% confidence level. 

Responses collected in the most recent survey revealed a median in-person worship attendance of 60 people. This marks an increase from the median in-person worship attendance numbers measured in the summer of 2021 (45), winter of 2021 (45) and the spring of 2022 (50) while remaining below the pre-pandemic median in-person worship attendance figure of 65 people. 

However, adding online worship attendance, median worship attendance for spring 2023 increases to 75, equal to the number reported in spring 2022. For the summer and winter of 2021, median worship attendance at both in-person and online services amounted to 65. 

"Attendance continues to rebound — but how and what you count makes some difference," the report states.

"Using a different way of measuring by looking at attendance change from 2020 to 2023, and overall, these churches are on average 9% below their pre-pandemic worship size. But, attendance patterns vary widely across the surveyed congregations. In over 50% of churches, combined worship attendance (both in person and virtual) is down considerably, but 33% of churches are now above where they were pre-pandemic. Additionally, 16% of current attendees are new to the congregation since 2020 — this follows a decades long pattern that showed an increase of, on average, about 5% of new attenders each year."

The share of individuals within the congregation who volunteer has rebounded after declining dramatically during the pandemic.

Data collected in the spring of 2020 measured the percentage of churchgoers who volunteer regularly at 45%. This figure experienced a significant drop to 15% in the summer of 2021, remaining steady at 15% in the winter of 2021. After rising to 20% in the spring of 2022, the volunteerism rate increased further to 35% in 2023. 

"Another reassuring bright spot is the rebound in the percentage of the congregation that volunteers regularly," the report states. "Previously, the significant dip in volunteer rates apparent in the past few surveys was worrisome because volunteers are critical to a church’s functioning."

The survey has also tracked average congregational income over time, with the newest data documenting a “positive sign of rebound.”

Before the pandemic, the average church had a median income of $120,000. The average church’s median income increased to $140,000 in the summer of 2021 before dropping to $130,000 in the winter of 2021 and $120,000 in the spring of 2022. The most recent research measured the average church’s median income at $170,000 in the spring of 2023, equating to an increase of over 25% compared to pre-pandemic levels adjusted for inflation. 

The research also illustrated that the level of conflict within congregations has declined since 2020. In 2020, when asked about their level of conflict, 36% of churches said they had “none.” In 2023, that percentage rose slightly to 39%. 

The share of churches experiencing a level of conflict defined as “not serious” increased from 28% to 32% over the past three years, while the percentage of churches that witnessed “serious” conflict where “people left” decreased from 35% in 2020 to 30% in 2023. The percentage of churches where “serious” conflicts led to the withholding of funds declined from 13% to 9%, and the share of churches experiencing “serious” conflicts where clergy left dropped from 12% to 7%. 

Ryan Foley is a reporter for The Christian Post. He can be reached at: ryan.foley@christianpost.com

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