As America marks one year of pandemic-related shutdowns this week, new research offers encouragement for pastors wondering whether in-person church attendance will eventually bounce back. Churches, along with almost every other sector of society, had to drastically alter their operations because of COVID-19. But as vaccination percentages increase and the virus threat decreases, worship services are likely to fill back to pre-pandemic numbers.
That’s a key takeaway from a recent Lifeway Research study of 1,000 Protestant churchgoers. When gathering in large groups is deemed safe again, 91% of respondents say they plan to worship in person as frequently as they did before March of 2020. Of those, 23% indicate they expect to attend services more than they did prior to the pandemic. By contrast, only six percent of churchgoers say they’ll attend less than before, and only one percent say they won’t return to in-person worship at all.
Churchgoers ages 18 to 29 top the list of survey respondents who say they’re most likely to attend church more frequently when COVID-19 is no longer a concern, at 43%. Among evangelical Christians, 28% say they’re likely to attend in-person worship more often than they did before the pandemic, compared to 19% of non-evangelical Protestants.
Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research, says that after a sharp decline in church attendance this January, many pastors were “wondering if those who haven’t returned ever will.” Two-thirds of U.S. churches that offered in-person worship in January 2021 reported church attendance figures of less than 70% of their January 2020 totals, McConnell says. But hearing that 91% of worshipers plan to return “when it is safe to do so,” he adds, should offer church leaders some much-needed hope after such a tumultuous year.
Church Attendance Through Livestreaming
Regarding church involvement during the yearlong pandemic, 87% of the churchgoers surveyed report staying with the same congregation, and 83% say they watched a livestreamed or online worship service at least once during 2020.
Back in September 2019, the number of churchgoers who said they participated in a virtual church service rather than in-person worship at least 18 times or more in the past year was just four percent. In the new study, however, 32% report that’s been the case.
“Churches livestreaming services during COVID-19 has made this experience commonplace among churchgoers,” says McConnell. “Despite the increased exposure to this concept, however, relatively few have made this a weekly habit.”
The forced suspension of large gatherings seems to have instilled a deeper appreciation for in-person worship. Ninety-four percent of respondents report that they “greatly value the times they can attend worship services in person with others from their church.”
Faith Growth Is Trending Too
Amid all the disruptions caused by the coronavirus, one bright spot seems to be the way this pandemic has impacted people’s faith. More than half (54%) of churchgoers surveyed by Lifeway indicate that the life-altering events of 2020 led them toward a closer relationship with God; half of those (27%) say they’re now “much closer” to him. About one in 10 (11%) admit that they are now questioning their Christian faith.
Again, young adults top both lists: More than one-third (37%) of respondents from the 18-to-29 age group say their faith grew during the pandemic, but almost one-quarter (24%) say they’re now questioning their beliefs.
McConnell notes, “The faith of most churchgoers remains resilient despite a year filled with much uncertainty and fewer options for meeting in person with others from church. During these trying times, churchgoers were almost eight times more likely to relate to God more than less.”
Other Church Attendance Impacts From COVID-19
Lifeway’s study also explores how the pandemic has affected churchgoers’ general interactions, jobs, and health. As recently as January, 36% of respondents indicate maintaining a limited number of interpersonal contacts. Seven percent report having contact with no one during that entire month.
On the employment front, six percent of respondents say they lost a job because of the pandemic, and 15% say their income has decreased. Ten percent say other church members have assisted with their day-to-day needs. “Like other Americans,” says McConnell, “churchgoers have seen the effects of COVID-19 firsthand. Many churchgoers have also felt the benefits of being part of a church as members checked on them or provided assistance.”
Evangelism opportunities also have reportedly increased during the past year, despite the physical distancing that’s been the norm. Fifteen percent of people surveyed say they have been able to share the gospel message with someone during this unprecedented time.
Health-wise, eight percent of respondents say they’ve received a COVID-19 diagnosis. Forty-two percent say a church member has tested positive, and 18% say someone in their congregation has died as a result.
According to a previous Lifeway Research study, 88% of Protestant pastors reported that a church attendee had tested positive for COVID-19, and 29% said a church member had died from the virus or from complications related to it.
Prepare for Outreach Opportunities
“Between now and June will be a tremendous outreach opportunity for churches as millions of people will be looking to go back to church and will be more open to trying new churches,” says Scott Evans, founder and CEO of Outreach Inc. “Easter is the start of this trend, but churches should plan on conducting outreach and extra communication after Easter into summer.”
To help churches welcome back members—and reach out to other people in the community—Outreach created a variety of outdoor banners, some with an Easter theme and others with messages such as “Together Again.” Currently, 3′ x 8′ customized outdoor banners are half off at www.Outreach.com. “We’re definitely seeing churches begin to communicate that they’re open again, and we expect this trend to continue after Easter,” says Evans.
Tim Downs, an Outreach VP who monitors trends, says church-signage needs during the bulk of the pandemic had been geared toward safety messaging, social distancing, and managing traffic flow. “As the public-health threat decreases and higher church occupancy is safer,” he says, “churches will need to clearly broadcast that they’re open, safe, and welcoming people back indoors.”
Downs adds, “We’re seeing outdoor services trending like never before. At many churches, ‘drive-in’ services are now popular. People will return to the sanctuary in great numbers once they feel the doors are open again, but we believe many churches will continue to offer multiple ways for congregants to engage; for example, indoor services and online access will be much more prevalent than they were before the pandemic.”