Church attendance stagnates amid return to in-person services: Pew

Members of the congregation participate in a mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception June 22, 2020, in Washington, D.C.
Members of the congregation participate in a mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception June 22, 2020, in Washington, D.C. | Getty Images/Alex Wong

The percentage of Americans who say they have attended religious services in the last month has leveled off as more churches and houses of worship have lifted various COVID-19 meeting restrictions and safety precautions, according to a Pew Research Center study. 

Pew released a report last week looking into the percentage of Americans that have returned to in-person worship now that gathering restrictions were being lifted across the country and more churches are again holding in-person worship services. 

In July 2020, a few months after the pandemic lockdowns began, according to the report, 13% of U.S. adults said they attended religious services in person the previous month.

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In March 2021, Pew reported that the figure had increased by 4 percentage points to 17%. And in September 2021, the share of adults who said they attended a religious service in the past month rose to 26%.

But in March 2022, the share of Americans who attended religious services in person in the previous month was 27% — only 1 percentage point higher than the 26% reported last September. 

Data for the report was drawn from Pew’s American Trends Panel, which involved a sample of 10,441 panelists interviewed between March 7 and March 13. The survey has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 1.5 percentage points. 

The study also found that a higher percentage of adults who say they attend religious services at least monthly say their houses of worship are open for in-person services. In July 2020, just 6% said their houses of worship were open to the public for services the same way as before the COVID-19 outbreak. In March 2022, that figure rose to 43%. 

In July 2020, 55% of adults who attend religious services at least monthly said their houses of worship were open to the public for services but with changes due to the COVID-19 outbreak. In March 2022, that share dropped to 47%.

In March 2022, only 5% of respondents who attend church monthly say their church or house of worship is not open for in-person services. In July 2020, that figure stood at 31%.

Sam Rainer, president of Church Answers and pastor at West Bradenton Baptist Church in Florida, told The Christian Post that he believes “there are times and there are seasons in the life of the church where a plateau is not a bad place to be.”

“If you are holding your own with attendance right now, if you are stable in attendance, I view that as a victory because it’s been harder to draw new people in during this season,” Rainer said.

“A lot of churches have lost people to COVID. Many have lost people to death that would have occurred anyway just naturally in the church. As people move on and pass on, you have to replace them with new people. And what that means is if you’re stable right now, you do have new people coming in, at least at the rate of those who are no longer able to be at the church. So I would view stability as success right now.” 

The Pew study suggested that the plateau could change depending on life circumstances.

“Assessing the impact of the pandemic on religious service attendance remains difficult for two main reasons. One is that the ultimate course of the pandemic is still unclear,” reads the study.

“What appears, at this moment, to be a plateau in religious service attendance could be followed by a rise if the pandemic gradually recedes, or by a drop if a new, highly infectious coronavirus variant emerges.” 

Rainer told CP that he agreed with the study about how things could change in the next few years depending on what life brings. However, he said, church attendance might not return to the numbers seen before the pandemic any time in the near future. 

“I believe that at some point, the practices will return to normal when it comes to restrictions,” said Rainer. “It takes two to three years of behavior change for things to come back to normal. So I would assume that in the next couple of years, we are going to see a return to similar practices as it were before the pandemic — at least in terms of restrictions lifting.” 

“That being said, things are permanently different. They have changed because of COVID. And I don’t see attendance returning to pre-pandemic levels anytime soon,” he added. “Obviously, if you look further out into the future, it’s difficult to know. We can see any number of things happen. At least in terms of the next five years, I do not believe that we will return to pre-pandemic attendance levels.” 

The pandemic accelerated and exacerbated existing problems in churches, according to Rainer. He said that whatever issues a church might have had before COVID-19 became more severe during the pandemic.

Specifically, Rainer noted, most churches lost those who were considered on the periphery of the church, those who were new to attending church or visitors.

“Almost every single church is now smaller. Part of the reason is what was left to cultural Christianity is now completely gone,” he said. “So there is no longer a social benefit culturally to attend church. So with the death of cultural Christianity comes less people attending church who are there just because of some sort of social benefit.”

Churches struggled to bring in new people or those on the periphery because they were not holding new services and events to invite new people for a good portion of the pandemic, Rainer said. 

“The other thing that the pandemic did was it caused those on the periphery to exit and to exit quickly. There’s always people that are feeding into the church, and there are always people who are fading out of the church,” he added.

“That could be for any number of reasons. They could just be seeking. They could be questioning their faith. They could be new to the church. So when things went on lockdown, those on the periphery faded away.” 

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