More U.S. Protestant churches are gathering in person since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and pastors say most churchgoers have returned as well.
Almost all U.S. Protestant pastors (98 percent) say their church met in person in August, according to a new Lifeway Research study. This marks the highest percentage of churches holding in-person services since March 2020, when COVID-19 became a national health issue.
During the first week of March last year, 99 percent of Protestant churches met in person. By the end of the month, only 7 percent did so, according to a previous Lifeway Research study. A majority of churches didn’t start holding in-person services again until June 2020. By September 2020, 87 percent met physically, but that dropped to 76 percent in January 2021, according to Lifeway Research studies. In August 2021, however, only 2 percent of churches did not meet in person at all.
“Every church’s path has been different during the pandemic, and each stage of resuming specific aspects of ministry is significant,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research. “Worshiping together as a physical assembly of believers in Jesus Christ is an important element of the Christian faith. For almost all Protestant churches, this stage of ministry is now active again, though other aspects of ministry may not be.”
Return of the Churchgoer?
Earlier this year, even as fewer churches held in-person services, 91 percent of churchgoers told Lifeway Research they planned on attending church services as much as they did prior to the pandemic or even more once COVID-19 was no longer an active threat to people’s health.
By September 2020, U.S. Protestant pastors reported most churchgoers had returned. The average church drew 63 percent of their pre-pandemic attendance levels. That dipped slightly in January 2021 to 60 percent. By August, the average pastor saw 73 percent of their church members in person on Sunday morning.
“Worship attendance is improving, but there is still a large gap between today’s in-person attendance and pre-COVID levels,” McConnell said.
While some churches are still below 50 percent of their January 2020 attendance levels, others report growing during the pandemic. Almost 1 in 8 (13 percent) say they had less than half of their pre-COVID-19 crowd in August. That percentage is down substantially from earlier in the pandemic. In both September 2020 and January 2021, more than 1 in 4 churches had less than half their normal Sunday morning crowds.
A plurality of pastors (35 percent) report attendance between 50 percent and 70 percent in August 2021. For 30 percent of pastors, late summer congregations were 70 percent to less than 90 percent. Another 1 in 8 (13 percent) were 90 percent to 100 percent of their previous levels.
— Aaron Earls is a writer for Lifeway Christian Resources.