By Aaron Earls
Writer, Lifeway Christian Resources
NASHVILLE — Compared to the beginning of 2021, more U.S. Protestant churches are gathering in person and more churchgoers are filling the pews. The return to pre-pandemic attendance levels has stalled, however, in recent months.
The latest Lifeway Research study found, despite a new variant wave of COVID-19, 97 percent of U.S. Protestant churches met in person during January 2022, while 3 percent say they did not gather for in-person services.
The percentage of churches meeting in person is statistically unchanged from an August 2021 Lifeway Research study, when 98 percent of churches physically gathered, but is up significantly from the 76 percent that met in January 2021.
“Almost all churches are able to meet in person for worship, though a few are struggling to reopen their doors,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research. “Many more churches are working to restart all their important ministries and continuing to encourage people to resume in-person participation,” he said.
More than one in five U.S. Protestant pastors (22 percent) say their church is close to their January 2020 attendance, with 10 percent saying they are at 90 percent to 100 percent of pre-pandemic levels and 12 percent reporting attendance is now higher than before COVID-19.
The same percentage of pastors (22 percent) reported crowds reaching at least 90 percent of their pre-pandemic attendance in August 2021. In January 2021, however, only 8 percent of churches had such levels.
Compared to January 2021, far fewer churches today have crowds of less than half of what they had in January 2020. At the beginning of last year, 31 percent of churches were at less than 50 percent of their pre-pandemic attendance levels, including 8 percent of churches that were below 30 percent. Now, 14 percent are below 50 percent attendance, and only 1 percent still say their congregation is less than 30 percent of what it was before COVID-19.
More than eight in 10 churches have an attendance of at least half of what it was prior to the pandemic. The average U.S. Protestant church reports attendance at 74 percent of what it was prior to COVID-19, which means one in four pre-pandemic churchgoers are still missing from in-person worship services.
“People’s return to in-person worship services has stalled,” said McConnell.
“There has been virtually no change in average attendance since August 2021. Some of this is the direct impact of COVID with people getting sick, needing to quarantine or being at high risk. But this also likely includes healthy individuals choosing to not return.”
The smallest churches, those with attendance less than 50 before COVID-19, are the most likely to be back at pre-pandemic levels. More than a third of those small churches (37 percent) report their attendance is at least 90 percent of what it was in January 2020, including 18 percent who say they have grown numerically during the pandemic.
Most churches shifted to some type of online video services during the height of the pandemic. Now, many are asking those watching online to participate in person.
In January, 2022, more than nine in 10 U.S. Protestant pastors (94 percent) say their churches provided some type of video content for their congregations, including 84 percent who livestreamed their worship services and 10 percent who posted a video of the sermon later. Prior to the pandemic, Lifeway Research found two in five churches said they neither livestreamed their service nor posted the sermon online later.
As the pandemic progressed, more churches shifted to livestreaming services. In March 2020, around two in three pastors (65 percent) said they livestreamed services, and more than a quarter (27 percent) posted a sermon online later.
With more churches using online video in recent years, 45 percent of Americans said they watched a Christian church service online during the pandemic, including 15 percent who say they normally don’t attend church, according to a 2021 Lifeway Research study.
Now, however, as almost all churches are holding in-person services again, many pastors say they want to see some online viewers transition to physical participation. Three in five pastors (60 percent) say they are exhorting online worshipers, who are able, to resume or begin to attend in person.
“Livestreaming has done a lot of good for churches, allowing members to hear weekly messages during the pandemic and allowing churches to reach new people,” said McConnell.
“Many pastors are hoping and actively working to reduce the number of shut-in members who are physically able but aren’t gathering in person with other believers,” he added.
The pandemic continues to have a lasting impact on congregations, and most pastors say that it’s been a negative one. Half (51 percent) say COVID-19 revealed weaknesses that already existed in their ministry, and 14 percent say the pandemic caused considerable damage to the church’s ministry. Far fewer say COVID-19 has hardly had any ministry impact on the congregation (12 percent) or has launched the church to greater levels of ministry (17 percent).
Most congregations have faced COVID-19 directly. Almost nine in 10 pastors (88 percent) say someone in their church has been diagnosed with COVID-19 in the last six months. Around one in five congregations (21 percent) say a churchgoer has died from COVID-19.
Additionally, 88 percent of U.S. Protestant pastors say attendees at their church have helped each other with tangible needs in the past six months. Almost two in three (63 percent) say churchgoers have recently met pandemic-related needs in the community.
In a 2021 Lifeway Research study, most Americans (53 percent) said churches in their community have been helpful during the pandemic.
While only 12 percent of churches say they have grown numerically during the pandemic, most say they have connected with new people during the last six months. More than four in five pastors (83 percent) say new people who haven’t attended their church in the past have recently attended or connected in person.
Around three in four pastors (74 percent) say they’ve had new people attend or connect with their church online in the past six months. Still, a third of pastors (33 percent) say the considerable number of needs within their congregation has made it hard to focus on reaching their community.
Two in five pastors (40 percent) admit that it’s hard to keep a positive tone among the leaders of the church. When asked directly about the attitude of the congregation, a quarter of pastors (24 percent) say the church is concerned about having fewer people and activities than before the pandemic, 27 percent say their congregation is moving forward but is exhausted trying to cover all the bases, and 44 percent say the congregation is excited about what God is doing today.
In addition to returning to in-person worship services, most U.S. Protestant pastors say their churches are also restarting small groups, student ministry and kids ministry.
More small groups are meeting now, and more are meeting in person compared to last January. On average, pastors now report 79 percent of their small group classes for adults that existed prior to the pandemic are now meeting, including 69 percent that are gathering in person.
In January 2021, 36 percent of groups that existed before COVID-19 met in person, 25 percent connected online or by phone, 33 percent didn’t meet and 6 percent no longer existed. Today, 13 percent of groups aren’t meeting and 8 percent no longer exist.
Among churches that had student and kids ministry activities prior to the pandemic, most have restarted but have yet to see their attendance return to pre-pandemic levels. Churches also remain more hesitant to resume all activities for children compared to teenagers.
— For more information, read the complete report and visit LifewayResearch.com.