Fewer churches are holding in-person services than did last summer as pandemic wears on: poll

Attendees at Fellowship Church worship with face masks, May 3, 2020. | Fellowship Church

A new Lifeway Research survey has found a significant decrease in in-person attendance among Protestant churches since last fall as nearly six times as many pastors say someone in their congregation has died of the coronavirus compared to last summer. 

Seventy-six percent of United States Protestant pastors said their churches met in-person in January, which is down from 87% of churches meeting in-person in September.

The online survey is based on interviews with 430 U.S. Protestant pastors and was conducted  between Feb. 1 and Feb. 11, with a margin of error of around 6 percentage points.

Lifeway Research Executive Director Scott McConnell told The Christian Post the level of in-person attendance in churches has fluctuated due to the pandemic's changing nature.

“It’s not a clean rebound of ‘we closed when the nation shut down last spring and then reopened after that,’” McConnell said. “It really is much like the pandemic itself, a bit of a roller coaster where churches are having to respond to this situation week to week.”

As the pandemic has forced churches to innovate and adapt to reach spiritual needs in a new landscape of lockdowns, the new study shows just how deeply the pandemic has impacted in-person church attendance and church activities nearly a year after the initial mid-March lockdowns in the U.S.

Only 2% of U.S. Protestant pastors report growth in in-person attendance than from before the pandemic. Nearly a third (31%) of the pastors say church attendance is less than 50% of what it was last January.

However, 30% of pastors reported their churches’ attendance was between 70% to 100% of their attendance in January 2020.

“Churches continue to evaluate when to meet in-person based on local conditions and cases within their congregation,” McConnell said in a statement. “Even when a church determines it’s safe to meet, their individual members will return on their own timetable.”

With a winter spike in COVID-19 cases, pastors have seen an uptick in COVID-19 diagnoses in their own churches and are learning to shepherd those suffering from the sickness or grieving from a loss. 

In February 2021, over 88% of pastors said their church had attendees diagnosed with COVID-19, compared to only 28% in July 2020. Now, 29% of pastors say their churches have lost an attendee to the virus, compared to only 5% who said the same when surveyed last summer.

Despite this, McConnell said churches are still rising to meet needs and that “the core activities and mission of individual churches will continue.”

“Churches have not stopped serving each other, and they have not stopped serving in their community,” he said. “They’ve continued to press forward with meeting tangible needs but also checking in on each other relationally, even if it is over the phone or over Zoom.”

The digital landscape has also provided opportunities to reach more people outside of the church. The study reported 88% of pastors said they saw new people attend or connect with their church online since the onset of the pandemic.

Small groups, youth and children’s ministries have also shifted drastically. Pastors report over 60% of church small groups are still meeting in some format, whether in-person or virtually, with about a third of small groups meeting in-person.

In nearly one-third of churches, youth activity is completely in-person, and children’s ministry is in-person for a quarter of the churches. Roughly four in five student ministries are still meeting in some way.

Over 50% of all youth and children’s ministry, however, has transitioned to either meeting in a completely virtual setting or not at all.

“The churches are still being cautious,” McConnell explained. “They’re still kind of working off a limited menu, so to speak, kind of like many of the restaurants that are open, and I think there’s growing desire among church leaders as well as congregations to be increasing that menu.”

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