Half of pastors expect post-COVID-19 church attendance to decline: Barna

Getty Images/Exkalibur
Getty Images/Exkalibur

A little more than half of pastors expect their worship attendance to decline after the COVID-19 pandemic is over, according to a new report by the Barna Group.

Barna recently released the findings of week 17 of their Church Pulse leader survey, which drew from a poll of 422 Protestant pastors taken Sept. 10-18.

Because each weekly survey has a different number of respondents, Barna reported the margin of error as varying between 4.77% and 7.65% depending on the sample.

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For week 17, 46% of pastors said that they expect attendance to have “declined slightly” by the end of the crisis, while 6% responded that they expect it to have “declined dramatically.”

This is the largest percentage of respondents to believe that worship attendance will have “declined slightly” since March 20, which was week 1 for the report.

For the first six weeks that the church leader survey was done, those who said it would have “declined slightly” was below 20%. Since week 12, the total has been 40% or higher.

Despite the sense that attendance will decline, 92% of respondents said that they were either “very confident” or “confident” that their church will “survive” the current crisis.

Earlier this year, the vast majority of churches in the United States halted their in-person worship gatherings to help curb the spread of the coronavirus, often switching to online services.

Many churches have returned to doing in-person services, typically adhering to a level of social distancing guidelines like wearing face masks and spacing out attendees.

The week 17 Barna survey found that 54% of pastors are holding services in their usual building/location, with 15% expecting to do so this month; 23% expected to do so by October and 13% did not expect to do so until next year.

Sixty-five percent said their facilities are open for normal use with some precautions in place; 2% are open with no precautions in place; 16% are open for small gatherings or meetings only; 11% are open for staff only; 2% are open to provide crisis services; and 4% are still closed to everyone.

Notably, more pastors believe their congregants' personal faith is declining during the pandemic. While only 1% said so in the first three weeks of the Barna survey, 18% agreed that their congregants' faith was diminishing by week 17. 

Many have speculated about the long-term damage the pandemic may have on American congregations, including attendance, donations, and participation in missions.

While about nine in 10 pastors said they expect their church to survive, this optimism was not shared by Barna President David Kinnaman in a recent interview with National Public Radio.

Speaking to NPR in August, Kinnaman explained that as many as one in five churches could permanently close within the next 18 months as a result of the pandemic and shutdowns.

“The disruptions related to giving, and maybe even as important to all that, is that even for those churches that have reopened, they’re seeing much smaller numbers of people show up. So simply reopening a church doesn’t fix the underlying economic challenges that you might have,” he said at the time.

Kinnaman also argued that “we’ll look back at this pandemic as a fundamental change to the way Americans” handled church attendance and church donations.

“Obviously, there will be a lot more online attendance than ever before, even after all churches reopen. I think this digital church is here to stay,” he continued.

“I think also it’s really going to change the way people think about their donation relationship with local churches as well. There’ll have to be even greater demonstration of the value that a church brings not just to those who attend but also those who are part of this community.”

For week 17, Barna found that 22% of pastors said financial giving the previous weekend was "slightly" down and 5% said it was "significantly" down. In week 2, 32% said it was "slightly" down and 47% saw a significant decline.

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