New normal settles for church post-pandemic

For two years now, almost every church in America has been holding in-person worship services, but not every pre-pandemic worshiper has returned.

The final Lifeway Research tracking data for U.S. Protestant churches’ COVID-19 recovery finds 100 percent (rounded to the nearest whole number) met in person in August 2023, capping off a rebound since the early months of the pandemic.

In March 2020, immediately prior to the widespread COVID-19 outbreak, 99 percent of congregations held in-person worship services. The next month, only 10 percent did so. By June 2020, most churches (70 percent) were physically gathering. That percentage continued to climb, reaching 87 percent by September 2020. Following a brief dip in January 2021 to 76 percent, almost all churches held in-person services in August of that year (98 percent) and January 2022 (97 percent). Last August, 100 percent (rounded) of congregations gathered in person for worship.

“During the height of the pandemic, churches took very different approaches on whether and how to meet in person,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research. “Two years ago, almost all churches that would reopen had done so.”

ATTENDANCE READJUSTMENTS

While 100 percent of churches have returned, that’s not the case for everyone in the pews. But the vast majority are back. On average, churches have seen 9 in 10 churchgoers return. U.S. Protestant pastors report current attendance at 89 percent of their typical worship service crowds in early 2020, prior to the start of the pandemic. This is the high-water mark for churches attempting to recover pre-pandemic attendance levels.

In January 2021, 60 percent of pre-COVID churchgoers gathered in person with their congregations. By August of that year, that climbed to 73 percent. Last year, pastors estimated they were at 85 percent of their previous attendance.

Around 9 in 10 U.S. Protestant churchgoers (91 percent) told Lifeway Research in February 2021 that they planned to attend worship services at their church at least as much or more as they did prior to the pandemic once they felt COVID-19 was no longer an active threat. At 89 percent of their pre-pandemic attendance, churches seem to have reached most of those who expressed a desire to return.

Pandemic-related issues did not seem to be a major driving force of churchgoers changing congregations, according to a 2023 Lifeway Research study. Among regular churchgoers who have switched churches as an adult, just 14 percent mentioned COVID-19 issues as a factor.

“Some church switchers left due to disagreement over how COVID was handled at their church, and others found a new church since theirs was closed for an extended period of time,” McConnell said. “But the vast majority of people have remained at their same church. In fact, most churchgoers who have changed churches as an adult arrived at their current church before the pandemic.”

Currently, 2 in 3 U.S. Protestant churches (67 percent) have fewer than 100 people for a typical worship service, including 30 percent who have fewer than 50. Around a quarter (26 percent) average between 100 and 249, while 7 percent have 250 or more.

Older pastors, those who are at least 65 years old, are the most likely to be leading the smallest congregations (47 percent). Those churches with fewer than 50 in attendance are more likely to be in the Northeast (36 percent) compared to the South (27 percent).

ROOM TO GROW

While most churches declined during the pandemic, some congregations are reporting stability or even growth.

Fewer than 1 in 10 churches (8 percent) say their current attendance is less than 50 percent of what it was before the pandemic. Less than a quarter of congregations (23 percent) say they are between 50 percent and less than 70 percent of previous attendance. Around 3 in 10 (29 percent) report 70 percent to less than 90 percent. Another 17 percent say they are between 90 and 100 percent. Almost a quarter (23 percent) say their typical worship services today have more people than they did in early 2020.

In January 2021, 2 percent of churches reported an increase in worship service attendance compared to prior to COVID-19. That grew to 9 percent in August 2021, 17 percent last year and 23 percent today.

“Even before the pandemic, growth was not what the typical church was experiencing,” McConnell said. “COVID-19 leveled church experiences to where almost no one was seeing growth. Today, a noticeable number of churches are growing again. But mindsets have adjusted to the reality that growth is a gift from God and is not to be taken for granted.”

— Aaron Earls is a writer for Lifeway Christian Resources.