By Aaron Earls
Throughout the spring and summer, as COVID-19 cases declined across the U.S., most churches returned to in person services with hopes of full pews by the fall. The recent coronavirus upswing has Americans more cautious and church leaders once again looking to adapt.July marked the first time since January that more adults felt pessimistic about the pandemic than optimistic, according to Gallup. Click To Tweet
Confidence that the pandemic was getting better plummeted in July, as more Americans now say the situation is getting worse (45%) than better (40%), according to Gallup. In June, 89% expressed optimism about the COVID situation and only 8% felt things were getting worse. Now, July marked the first time since January that more adults felt pessimistic about the pandemic than optimistic.
The U.S. public also expects the pandemic to stretch to the end of 2021 and possibly beyond. Gallup found 4 in 10 Americans say the level of disruption to travel, school, work, and public events will last through the end of the year (41%), while similar numbers say it will go even longer (42%). Few say things will be back to normal in a few more months (12%) or a few weeks (5%). Those numbers are up dramatically from June when almost as many thought things would be over in a few more weeks (15%) as thought it would stretch into 2022 (17%).
Americans are increasingly worried they will catch COVID-19. Around 3 in 10 (29%) say they are at least somewhat worried they will get the coronavirus, up from 17% last month and at levels last seen in April. July was also the first month the percentage worried they would get COVID grew since October 2020, according to Gallup. Also, worries increased among both vaccinated and unvaccinated Americans, but the vaccinated (33%) are more worried about catching COVID than the unvaccinated (20%).Americans are more likely now than in June to say people without symptoms should stay home as much as possible to avoid contracting or spreading the disease (41% to 35%), according to Gallup. Click To Tweet
In what could be concerning news for churches seeking to use the fall season to launch churchwide ministries, Gallup says Americans are more likely now than in June to say the best advice for people without symptoms is to stay home as much as possible to avoid contracting or spreading the disease (41% now, 35% in June). Though most Americans still say the best advice for those who are healthy is to lead their normal lives as much as possible and avoid interruptions to work and business (59%).
Gallup did find that most Americans have not yet allowed COVID concerns to alter their behavior again. One in 5 (19%) say they are completely or mostly isolating themselves from people outside of their household, essentially unchanged from June (18%). There has also been no meaningful change since last month in the percentage of Americans who are avoiding small gatherings (20%) or large crowds (40%).
In February, 91% of U.S. Protestant churchgoers told Lifeway Research that when COVID-19 is no longer an active threat to people’s health, they planned to attend in-person worship services at least as often as they did prior to the pandemic. As COVID cases rise again and 2 in 5 U.S. adults are still avoiding large crowds, however, churches should not expect everyone to feel comfortable returning to normal.2 in 5 U.S. adults are avoiding large crowds, according to Gallup, which means there may be some churchgoers who do not feel comfortable returning or who may transition back to online attendance. Click To Tweet
Not only may there be some who have not yet attended in-person, the return to COVID pessimism may mean some who have attended previously may transition away from in-person services again. In January 2021, the last month Gallup found Americans more likely to say the pandemic situation was getting worse, 44% of pre-COVID weekly churchgoers said they did not attend any in-person worship services, including 25% who said their church offered such services, according to Lifeway Research.
Church leaders should continue to look for ways to involve and connect with those who are COVID-cautious. For many that means continuing to offer some form of online worship services. Churches should also investigate the possibility of a strictly online group or some means for those uncomfortable being in-person to participate in small group discipleship.
The “unprecedented times” have become quite precedented. While most may not enjoy it and some are vocal in their opposition, Americans are now accustomed to COVID-related adjustments. Church leaders must be prepared to change practices based on changing local circumstances.Churches must be prepared to change practices based on changing local circumstances. Click To Tweet
Jamie Aten and Kent Annan of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College say churches should approach their pandemic recovery and restart like a marathon not a sprint. That may mean being willing to take what seems to be a step back to ensure long-term progress. It also means embracing the unique strengths and giftings of your church and the people who comprise it.
Churches who continue to serve their people and their neighborhood during this extended difficult moment will eventually come out on the other side with a congregation more united around its mission and a community more open to the gospel.
Aaron is the senior writer at Lifeway Research.