A yearlong study of more than 1,000 pastors and leaders, conducted by ChurchSalary and the Arbor Research Group on the impact of COVID-19 on the American church, has been completed and the results released.
Here are the headlines:
More than one in three churches saw attendance declines between 2020 and 2022.
The reasons for the departures include disagreements over health policies, other disagreements, because they moved, or no reason was given at all.
Churches in large cities and suburbs were most likely to see a decline in attendance, rural churches the least. Majority black congregations were among the hardest hit, with 64% reporting decreased attendance since 2020.
Church attendance was most impacted by reactions to pandemic restrictions in no-win scenarios. Churches who shut their doors for long periods, or required masks, lost attenders who wanted to return to “normal” more quickly; churches that responded with less stringent restrictions equally lost attenders who were more cautious, had health concerns, or felt the church was not being more compassionate about ensuring COVID did not spread.
Church leaders were of one mind in regard to the Catch-22 COVID presented. No matter what they did, what they said, or how they responded, someone was going to be angry or upset and leave.
Post-COVID, leaders cite a decline in commitment and involvement among those who are attenders.
A five-year research project led by the Hartford Institute for Religious Research, “Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations,” is reaching similar conclusions. Compared to three years ago, a higher percentage of churches are facing serious declines in attendance. In 2020, 27% of churches said they had lost more than a quarter of their weekend attendance. In 2023, instead of a rebound, the number of churches reporting that steep of a drop climbed to 30%. More than half (54%) are in some form of decline.
Lifeway Research finds similar results among Southern Baptist churches with 81.5% reporting that they are either plateaued or declining in terms of growth.
As disheartening as these studies may be, the Hartford research presented the most distressing news of all. In the spring of 2020, almost three in four churches (73%) said they were willing to change in whatever way was needed for the church to flourish. That climbed to nearly 90% during 2021. Now, the number of churches expressing any willingness to change has dropped to 66%.
And the health of those churches who have gone hybrid?
Hartford seems to have tailored the research along the lines of those who emphasize in-person instead of virtual, and those churches that emphasize virtual over in-person attendance. That is not what a true hybrid model is. (For more on what truly constitutes a hybrid church, I would recommend my book, “Hybrid Church: Rethinking the Church for the Post-Christian Digital Age.”)
Nonetheless, they found that those churches that embrace the virtual have higher virtual attendance, more total attending worship, greater likelihood to have grown in worship attendance, and, overall, higher giving rates.
But let’s return to the nearly one-third of all churches now expressing an unwillingness to change. It brings to mind the title of an old book: “The Seven Last Words of the Dying Church.”
And what are those seven words?
“We never tried it that way before.”
For those that actually die, they surely add, “And never will.” That will kill more churches than any pandemic ever could.
This article originally appeared here and is used by permission.