It is difficult to distinguish between declining church attendance that has been ongoing for many years and the drop due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The combination of the two at this intersection in time shows post-COVID attendance failing to reach pre-COVID levels.
Pew Research polled a sample of American Christians in July 2020 and March 2022. The results are alarming and interesting.
In July 2020, 6 percent of churches were open to in-person worship services. Fifty-five percent were open on a limited basis with various constraints and regulations. Thirty-one percent were not open for in-person services. In March 2022, 5 percent were open to the public and holding services, while 47 percent were open for in-person worship but with some restrictions, and 43 percent were not open for public services.
Sixty-seven percent of American Christians said they had attended in-person services in the last month, while 57 percent said they had watched services online or on television.
Leonardo Blair, writing for the Christian Post, stated, “With more parents raising their children with weak or no bond to a faith community, it’s a lot more difficult for them to be converted in adulthood.” That is something most Southern Baptists pastors have been saying for years. But today, we hear that sentiment less and less.
Blair also observed, “Much of the disaffection for religion today is largely driven by people who were once religious. There is a growing population of religiously unaffiliated whose once religious parents raised them without religion. Many childhood religious activities that were once common, such as saying grace, have become more of the exception than the norm. Childhood religious experiences have strongly predicted adult religiosity.”
Church attendance has not stopped its overall demise. COVID has simply added to the dilemma.
Phil Cooke, a Hollywood media producer, writer, and coach with a Ph.D. in theology, noted that “Livestreaming has changed everything and will continue. Sunday services are about to undergo a shakeup. Churches are now moving into the communities instead of asking the communities to come to them, and churches will never look at the government the same way again (think of closures and mandates).”
A report in “Changing Church” states that average attendance has fallen by 32 percent. For example, in 2020 SBC churches had 4.4 million people gathered for worship. Sounds impressive — until you realize we state that we have roughly 14 million church members. Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research, said, “COVID-19 clearly impacted in-person attendance. Throughout much of the year, churches tried to find the right balance of both in-person and online events, but COVID-19’s impact extended beyond weeks that congregations could not meet at all. When they did meet, the average church saw fewer people attending.”
The Institute of Family Studies reported that in 2019, 34 percent of Americans attended a religious service at least once or twice a month. In 2020 it had declined to 31 percent, and in 2021 it was 28 percent. While many older people are attending church services less, the largest demographic to drop in church attendance has been young adults. In 2019, 36 percent of ages 18-34 attended church at least once or twice a month. That number has now dropped to 26 percent.
While church attendance is declining, it is not all bad news. Pastors of small churches have reported a healthy post-COVID attendance, with only around 10 percent less than pre-COVID. Nineteen percent of these small church pastors shared that their church had a growth in attendance that exceeded pre-COVID levels.
In the post-pandemic church, certain traits have been observed: fewer people attending; more turnover in membership; offerings lower; more church leaders dealing with fearful feelings in their ministry work; and a rise in pastoral resignations. Thom Rainer has noted that home small groups have waned and that digital communication methods are growing.
In the secular workplace, a significant number of American workers want more flexibility in their work routines, and many prefer flexibility over a raise. Going forward, the post-pandemic church that is healthy spiritually will find a suitable way to provide flexibility for its members — from digital services to service times and community involvement. The post-pandemic church will need to be more focused on genuine biblical disciple-making than the pre-pandemic church was.
Church attendance may continue to decline, but the church may also find a way to become the Church that Jesus called and commissioned to evangelize, baptize, and make disciples from every nation, language, and ethnic background. COVID-19 brought us a pandemic, but that may also result in a genuine revival in the churches. Let us claim Romans 2:28 for this season in our lives.