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Across US, Houses of Worship Struggle to Rebuild Attendance

Rev. Meredith Mills delivers a sermon from the pulpit for some 30 attendants during the second service of the day in the sanctuary at Westminster United Methodist Church Sunday, Dec. 12, 2021, in Houston. Attendance for the two Sunday services is only about half of the average pre-pandemic turnout of about 160 or 170, Mills says. “It's better now than it was a year ago, but it's still frustrating,” she said. “People just seem to want to leave home less these days.” (AP Photo/Michael Wyke)

When Westminster United Methodist Church in Houston resumed in-person services late last year, after a seven-month halt due to COVID-19, there were Sundays when only three worshippers showed up, according to the pastor, Meredith Mills.

Since then, attendance has inched back up, but it’s still only about half the pre-pandemic turnout of 160 or 170, Mills estimates.

“It’s frustrating,” she said. “People just seem to want to leave home less these days.”

Some houses of worship are faring better than Mills’ church, some worse. Polls by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research shows how dramatically church attendance fell during the worst of the pandemic last year, even as many say they are now returning to regular service attendance.

Among mainline Protestants, just 1% said in a May 2020 poll that they were attending in-person services at least once a week. In the new poll, 14% say they’re doing so now, compared to 16% who say they did in 2019.

Among evangelical Protestants, 37% now say they are attending services in person at least weekly, while 42% said they did that in 2019. In the May 2020 poll, just 11% said they were attending services in person that often.

Among Catholics, 26% attend in person at least weekly now, compared with 30% in 2019. In the 2020 poll, conducted as many bishops temporarily waived the obligation for weekly Mass attendance, just 5% were worshipping in person at least weekly.

At St. Ambrose Catholic Parish in Brunswick, Ohio, the six services each weekend drew a total of about 3,800 worshippers before the pandemic, according to the pastor, Bob Stec. Current weekend attendance is about 2,800, Stec says, with 1,600 or more households joining online worship.

Elsewhere, churches large and small have taken hits in attendance.

John Elkins, teaching pastor at Sovereign Grace Fellowship in Brazoria, Texas, says 25 to 30 people have attended services recently, down from around 50 before the pandemic.

“For some, I was not political enough,” he said via email. “Some wanted more activities, some just stopped going to church.”

Sovereign Grace, a Southern Baptist church, had never offered online worship before the pandemic. When in-person worship was halted for a month in 2020, leaving online worship as the only option, Elkins said he did more crisis counseling for congregation members than ever before.