The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the decline in church attendance, even among regular churchgoers, a recent survey shows.
Around one in five churchgoers (22% churched adults, 19% practicing Christians) said they have never attended a service during the pandemic, either in person or online, Barna Research found. Before the pandemic, all practicing Christians and most churched adults had reported attending church at least once within the last six months.
"Overall in the data, we are seeing that there’s a decline in church engagement during the COVID-19 pandemic," Barna's director of published research, Savannah Kimberlin, told The Christian Post.
Some of the attendance drop might come from older people, who feel less comfortable with online activities, not engaging church, but the majority comes from something else, Kimberlin believes. The drop in church attendance from COVID-19 follows a pattern of decreased church attendance that began in 2008.
"When we’re looking at general church engagement, there has been a slow decline over the last 10 years," she said. "Right around 2008, 2009 and 2010, a downward trend started, something shifted in our nation. The trend has been downward ever since."
The pandemic increased this trend, she said.
"It’s almost as if the disruption multiplied overnight. Five years of disruption has happened over the course of five months," Kimberlin said.
The survey sampled 1,302 American adults in September. Barna Research classified the adults into three groups: practicing Christians who demonstrated past faith with strong church attendance, churched adults who sometimes attend church, and unchurched adults who don’t usually attend church.
Among all U.S. adults, 53% said they never attended church in-person or digitally during the pandemic. Only 19% attended weekly. Some 73% of practicing Christians and 60% of churched adults said they attended church at least once a month over the course of the pandemic.
Before COVID-19 hit the United States earlier this year, all practicing Christians and 80% of churched adults said they attended church at least within the past month.
The survey noted that though many Christians said they did not “attend” church, either in-person or digitally, some of those same respondents reported that they “watched a church service online.” In fact, 53% of "dropouts," or churched adults who said they haven’t attended church in any form, said they watched online. And 24% who said they watched a service reported that they never attended a service digitally or in-person.
Overall, 18% of practicing Christians and 26% of churched adults said they “watched” a church service online.
Personal participation seems to divide attending and watching, Kimberlin said.
"There are a lot of people who have said they’ve watched church but they have never attended a service digitally. It does not go the other way," she said. "What we decided is it really all comes down to engagement. Are you consuming a service passively or are you feeling connected to your community? Do you feel present and invested as a congregant?"
The survey found that without the experience of standing with other believers, many Christians don’t participate in the physical actions of worship. When practicing Christians watch church at home, only 40% sing along with worship, 64% pray with leaders and 42% watch alongside their family. For Christians who aren’t committed, the numbers are even lower, Barna found.
Eight in 10 churchgoing Christians said experiencing God alongside others in church was very important to them, Kimberlin noted. Decreased participation in church begins with decreased attendance, she added.
It's unclear what the future of the American Church will be after COVID-19, Kimberlin said. Many Christians have left the church, but some nonbelievers have grown more interested in God.
"We will have to wait and see if the people who have pulled away from church will come back," she said. "One thing we know for sure is we are going to have to win some people back."
Since March, lockdowns across the country have forced businesses and churches to close their doors in response to the novel coronavirus. Though some rules were eased over the months, health officials have now reported another wave of infections, leading some states to enforce more restrictions, including limiting or banning indoor worship.