The vast majority of U.S. Protestant churches say they are holding in-person services, but churchgoers have yet to attend in the numbers they did before the coronavirus pandemic struck, and many pastors say the 2020 economy is hurting their congregation.
According to a recent survey from Nashville-based LifeWay Research, 87 percent of Protestant pastors in the U.S. say their church met in person in September, while another LifeWay survey shows almost half of them say the current economy is negatively impacting their churches.
LifeWay Research has been tracking how COVID-19 is affecting churches. While few Protestant churches gathered physically in April, most began meeting in person again by May, with more than 7 in 10 pastors saying they did so in July.
“More and more churches across the U.S. have found ways to meet again, but things are not back to normal,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research. “The impact of regulations, caution and hardships means more than 1 in 10 churches are still not meeting in person for any type of worship service. Churches are living organisms, and when more than a third of their members are missing, they are not whole.”
Social distancing may be becoming easier now in churches, but most pastors say their congregation has less than 70 percent of their pre-COVID crowds, a statistic with which most South Carolina pastors who responded to an informal online poll by The Courier seemed to agree.
Nationally, 1 in 10 churches (9 percent) say their attendance in September was less than 30 percent of what it was in February before the pandemic spread to the U.S. Another 20 percent say attendance was between 30 percent and less than 50 percent of what it was.
A third of pastors (34 percent) say it has reached 50 percent to less than 70 percent of previous levels. For 1 in 5 (21 percent), attendance is between 70 percent to less than 90 percent.
Few pastors say attendance is close to what it was earlier in the year. One in 10 pastors (11 percent) say September’s attendance was 90 to 100 percent of February’s, while 4 percent say their current attendance is more than what it was pre-COVID. In February, 20 percent of Protestant churches had crowds topping 250 people. In September, only 6 percent drew attendance levels that high.
Hickory Grove Baptist Church in Conway, where Denis McCorry is pastor, for example, went to drive-in services for six weeks when the pandemic started. The church returned to in-person services on Mother’s Day and saw an attendance of 30 to 40 percent, but it now reports an attendance of 65-70 percent, with more coming back each week, McCorry said.
“For us, masks recommended, social distancing, hand sanitizer stations, electrostatic disinfectant spray cleaning, no choir, no meet-and-greet, online giving, and shortened services have helped the folks feel confident to come back,” McCorry added.
Bucking the trend, though, is Lake Bowen Baptist Church. According to Pastor Brad Atkins, the congregation was averaging 805 in attendance before the pandemic with only one service. Since regathering, however, the church has begun offering three services, which now average a combined attendance of 801, he said.
“We still have many that are a part of the LBBC family who have not returned, but we have been flooded with visitors causing us to be almost at the same attendance as before,” Atkins noted. “This has been a tremendous season to preach the gospel as we have baptized 27 since our three services began.”
Among the 48 percent of Protestant pastors who say the current economy is negatively impacting their church, only 5 percent describe the impact as very negative.
Around 1 in 6 (15 percent), however, believe the economy has had a positive effect, including 4 percent saying it is having a very positive impact. More than a third of pastors (35 percent) say there’s been no impact.
The 2020 negative numbers are the highest since January 2016, when 51 percent of pastors said the economy was hurting their church.
“The recovery from the last recession was slow for many churches,” said McConnell. “Even in a good economy, it can be easy to focus on external factors that are hurting your church’s finances. Clearly, many pastors are seeing the recession of 2020 impacting their church.”
Most Protestant pastors surveyed say giving has been at or below 2019 levels, as well as at or below their budget for this year. Around a third report giving levels lower than last year and lower than their current budget.
For close to half of churches (45 percent), giving in 2020 has been about what was budgeted. A third (33 percent) say it is lower than budgeted, while 21 percent say giving has been higher.
When compared to 2019, 35 percent say giving has dropped this year, 32 percent say it is the same, and 29 percent say it is above last year’s levels.
While many pastors may not know the exact extent to which the pandemic has altered their church for months or years to come, some say it has already brought long-term changes.
The most common shift pastors had to make due to COVID-19 was delaying a large planned capital expense, with 12 percent of pastors saying they had to put off a construction project or similar expenditure.
Some churches (8 percent) say they were forced to delete a ministry. Overall, 2 percent of pastors say they cut their outreach ministry, 2 percent got rid of their children’s ministry, 2 percent stopped Sunday school or small groups, 1 percent ended student ministry, and 1 percent deleted other service times like Wednesday and Sunday nights.
Church staff were impacted at some congregations, as 6 percent of pastors say their church reduced the pay or benefits for staff members, and 6 percent say they were forced to delete a staff position.
Still, almost 3 in 4 Protestant pastors (73 percent) say their congregation has avoided any of these long-term issues to this point.
“Most churches have not had to make drastic cuts to their ministry to this point, but the effects of the pandemic are also not over,” said McConnell. “From pastors’ perspectives, some of the suspended ministry activities already feel long-term, even if they hope to resume those activities soon.”
Still, some churches are faring worse in giving than others in 2020. Minority-led, mainline and smaller congregations are more likely to say they’ve felt the brunt of the declining economy.
“The economic impact of COVID-19 has been very uneven, and that includes churches,” McConnell said. “The types of churches that are most likely to be struggling financially are also the most likely to have not gathered in person in September.”
— Compiled from reporting by Aaron Earls, a writer for LifeWay Christian Resources, with additional reporting by The Baptist Courier.