By Aaron Earls
A growing majority of regular churchgoers have returned to in-person worship services, but a sizable number still didn’t physically attend last month.
A Pew Research study finds 64% of Americans who typically attend church at least monthly attended a religious service in person in September 2021—up from 43% in March 2021 and 33% in July 2020.64% of Americans who typically attend church at least monthly attended a religious service in person in September 2021—up from 43% in March 2021 and 33% in July 2020, according to @pewresearch. Click To Tweet
Among Christians, evangelical Protestants are the most likely to say they attended in person in September. Almost 3 in 4 (72%) did so, up from 53% in March and 44% last July.
While the latest tracking numbers still show an average of more than 1,500 deaths from COVID-19 each day in the U.S., the numbers also reveal steep declines in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. A February 2021 Lifeway Research study found 9 in 10 U.S. Protestant churchgoers said they would return to in-person worship service at least as often as they did prior before the pandemic when COVID-19 was no longer an active threat to people’s health.
According to Pew, most churchgoers (82%) are at least somewhat confident they can safely attend in-person services right now without spreading or catching the coronavirus, with close to half (46%) saying they are very confident. Among evangelicals, 86% express confidence they can attend safely, including 57% who say they are very confident. Those who attend a historically Black Protestant church are the least confident—a full quarter (25%) say they are not too or not all confident they can attend without spreading or catching COVID-19.Most churchgoers (82%) are at least somewhat confident they can safely attend in-person services right now without spreading or catching the coronavirus, according to @pewresearch. Click To Tweet
As more grow comfortable and attend in person, the number of churchgoers opting to watch worship services online is decline. Last July, 74% of churchgoers said they watched a religious service online, including 80% of evangelical Protestants. At that point, more were watching online than attending in person. Now, 55% of regular churchgoers watched a service online in September, including 62% of evangelicals.
Streaming services online became widespread among Protestant churches during the pandemic, according to Lifeway Research. In a previous study of Protestant pastors conducted prior to the spread of COVID-19, 41% said they didn’t regularly livestream any portion of their church service or post the sermon online later. At the time of the survey, only around 1 in 4 (27%) said they livestreamed either the entire service or just the sermon.
As the coronavirus began to spread and social distancing guidelines emerged, the vast majority of churches quickly provided digital options. By March 2020, Lifeway Research found 92% of Protestant pastors said they provided some type of video sermons or worship services online. That climbed to 97% in April 2020.
In a Lifeway Research study from early 2021, 85% of Protestant churchgoers said their congregation offered livestreamed worship services, and 76% said their church posted a video of the worship service to watch later. Additionally, 53% of churchgoers said they watched online worship services at their church more in 2020 than in 2019, while 21% said they watched more online services at a different church in 2020.
Throughout the pandemic, Lifeway Research found pastors reporting that new people who had previously not attended their church in the past attended or connected online. The latest study seems to bear that out, as 45% of Americans say they have watched a Christian church service online during the COVID-19 pandemic, including 15% who say they don’t normally physically attend.
As the pandemic has worn on, churches have not only adopted livestreaming, most churchgoers say their churches are physically open—even if there are some differences from pre-COVID-19. Last July, Pew Research found 31% of churchgoers, including 24% of evangelicals, said their church was not open at all for in-person services. Now, only 6% of churchgoers, 2% of evangelicals, say the same.
Throughout the pandemic, most churchgoers have said their church was open but with some differences brought on by COVID-19—57% in July 2020, 66% in March 2021, and 60% in September 2021. The number of churchgoers who say their church is open and holding services the same as pre-pandemic, however, has more than quadrupled since last year, from 6% in July 2020 to 29% in September.The number of churchgoers who say their church is open and holding services the same as pre-pandemic has more than quadrupled since last year, from 6% in July 2020 to 29% in September, according to @pewresearch. Click To Tweet
Evangelical churchgoers, in particular, say their church has transitioned back to pre-COVID-19 normal. In July last year, 7% say their church was open and operating the same as pre-pandemic. In September this year, around half (49%) say their church is holding services the same as they were before COVID-19.
Most churchgoers say what should be happening at their church is what is happening at their church. The percentage of churchgoers who their church should be open for services but with changes as a result of the outbreak (60%) is the same as the percentage who say their church is open in that way.
Aaron is a writer for LifewayResearch.com.