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Lifeway Research: Churches Still Recovering From Pandemic Losses

As the pandemic progressed, more churches shifted to livestreaming services. In March 2020, around 2 in 3 pastors (65%) said they livestreamed services, and more than a quarter (27%) posted a sermon online later.

With more churches using online video in recent years, 45% of Americans said they watched a Christian church service online during the pandemic, including 15% 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 5 pastors (60%) 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.”

Evangelical pastors (70%) are more likely than mainline pastors (49%) to say they’re specifically encouraging those watching online to physically attend if they are able. Pastors of churches with 200 or more in attendance on Sunday (72%) are more likely than smaller churches to also say they’re asking those able to transition from online to in person.

Pandemic Impact

The pandemic continues to have a lasting impact on congregations, and most pastors say that it’s been a negative one. Half (51%) say COVID-19 revealed weaknesses that already existed in their ministry, and 14% 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%) or has launched the church to greater levels of ministry (17%).

Most congregations have faced COVID-19 directly. Almost 9 in 10 pastors (88%) say someone in their church has been diagnosed with COVID-19 in the last six months. Around 1 in 5 congregations (21%) say a churchgoer has died from COVID-19.

Additionally, 88% of U.S. Protestant pastors say attendees at their church have helped each other with tangible needs in the past six months. Almost 2 in 3 (63%) say churchgoers have recently met pandemic-related needs in the community. In a 2021 Lifeway Research study, most Americans (53%) said churches in their community have been helpful during the pandemic.

While only 12% 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 4 in 5 pastors (83%) say new people who haven’t attended their church in the past have recently attended or connected in person. Around 3 in 4 pastors (74%) say they’ve had new people attend or connect with their church online in the past six months. Still, a third of pastors (33%) say the considerable number of needs within their congregation has made it hard to focus on reaching their community.

Two in 5 pastors (40%) 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%) say the church is concerned about having fewer people and activities than before the pandemic, 27% say their congregation is moving forward but is exhausted trying to cover all the bases, and 44% say the congregation is excited about what God is doing today.

Ministry Recovery

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.