When asked to rate their church’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis, 86 percent of Protestant churchgoers say their church’s COVID-19 response makes them proud. That’s according to a new study from Nashville-based Lifeway Research, which has been gauging U.S. church trends and opinions throughout the pandemic.
Of those 86 percent of respondents who feel proud of their church’s response, 58 percent “strongly agree.” Only 12 percent of respondents say they’re ashamed of how their church has responded to the pandemic.
“A large majority of churchgoers agree with their church’s various responses, and few are critical overall,” says Lifeway executive director Scott McConnell. He acknowledges, however, that “pastors have heard their share of second-guessing for how they have handled their church’s response to COVID-19.”
Churches Have Varied Widely in Their COVID-19 Response
“The experiences of churchgoers have varied greatly, because their churches have responded differently to the impact of the pandemic on their church and local community,” McConnell says. Almost one-third (31 percent) of churchgoers report that in-person worship services were briefly halted at their congregation but have now resumed. Twenty-two percent say the suspension of in-person gatherings lasted for most of the past year but has now ended. Only five percent of churchgoers say their place of worship met for in-person services during the entire pandemic.
An earlier Lifeway study found that slightly more than half (51 percent) of Protestant churchgoers attended no in-person worship services during January 2021. During that month, 53 percent of respondents said they took part in an alternative form of worship.
“A large minority of churchgoers attend a church that did not offer in-person services for much of 2020,” says McConnell. “As January  illustrates, just because a church offered in-person services does not mean every churchgoer was willing to participate in that way with the coronavirus still actively circulating.
Among African-American churchgoers, 40 percent say in-person worship services still haven’t resumed at their congregation. Lifeway’s study also reveals that African-American pastors are most likely to indicate that the pandemic is negatively affecting their church financially. About one-fifth (21 percent) report having to cut staff pay or benefits, and 18 percent report having to cut a staff position.
Branching Out with Worship Options
Lifeway’s newest numbers on churches’ COVID-19 response also show that churches have flexed their creativity during the pandemic—and that churchgoers have made good use of various worship options. Eighty-five percent of respondents say their church livestreamed services, and of those, 83 percent say they participated.
Of the churches that livestreamed, 55 percent posted video footage of worship to their website, 51 percent used Facebook Live, 34 percent used YouTube, and 22 percent used Zoom or a similar videoconferencing program. Three-fourths (76 percent) of respondents say the videos are available to watch any time, and of those, 80 percent indicate participating that way.
Other worship options that emerged during the pandemic also were fairly well received. Thirty-nine percent of respondents say their church held services outdoors, and of those, 58 percent say they participated. Thirty percent say their church held drive-in services, of those, 56 percent participated. More than half (52 percent) say their church offered online Bible studies, and of those, 59 percent participated.
“Much like the old children’s song, churches have been inside, outside, upside, and downside during this pandemic,” says Lifeway’s McConnell. “It would be a stretch to say churchgoers have been ‘happy all the time,’ but amid the variety of approaches and technology used, a majority of churchgoers participated at some point in what their church offered.”