By Aaron Earls
Most pastors know the individuals in their congregations who are missing. They don’t need research to tell them. Each week they look out from the pulpit and see the empty spot where someone used to regularly sit.
What research can tell pastors is whether their church is out of the ordinary or if their missing members align with trends elsewhere.
So, looking at the research, what do we see? What do most churches across the country look like? Which churchgoers are most likely to have not returned yet? What has this meant for small churches with fewer attendees to begin with?
These five trends can help us better understand the predicament of churches across the country and how individual congregations compare to the national picture.
1. Church attendance has fallen during the pandemic
This probably comes as no surprise to pastors and church leaders, but fewer people regularly attend church now than prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to analysis from the Institute of Family Studies (IFS). In 2019, 34% of Americans attended a religious service at least once or twice a month. That fell to 31% in 2020 and 28% in 2021.In 2019, 34% of Americans attended a religious service at least once or twice a month, according to analysis from @FamStudies. That fell to 31% in 2020 and 28% in 2021. Click To Tweet
The decline in regular attenders didn’t lead to a rise in sporadic attenders. Those who attend a few times a year remained flat over the last three years. But those who never or seldom attend church rose from 50% to 57% of Americans.
2. Most churches are (and are not) back to normal
By September 2021, 98% of churches had returned to in-person worship services, according to Lifeway Research. Yet the same study found that the average pastor saw 73% of their church members in person on Sunday mornings. In other words, more than 1 in 4 pre-COVID churchgoers are still missing.More than 1 in 4 pre-COVID churchgoers are still missing on Sunday mornings, according to Lifeway Research. It's an improvement from early 2021, but still not at the 91% who said they plan to return. Click To Tweet
That is an improvement from early 2021 when churches were close to 60% pre-pandemic attendance, but still not at the 91% of churchgoers who said they plan to return when COVID-19 is no longer an active threat to people’s health.
If your church is currently holding in-person services but seeing a sanctuary emptier than it was in 2019, you are not alone. The majority of U.S. Protestant churches are facing the same issue.
3. Regular churchgoers are still (mostly) regular
A recent study from Grey Matter found evangelicals who attended church at least monthly prior to the pandemic where less likely to make the choice to stop attending during the pandemic compared to those who attended less frequently. Only 11% of at least monthly churchgoers made the decision to stop attending in-person services even if their church was gathering. Among those who attended less than monthly prior to COVID, 25% chose to stop attending once the pandemic began.Only 11% of at least monthly pre-COVID churchgoers made the decision to stop attending in-person services during the pandemic even if their church was gathering, according to Grey Matter. Click To Tweet
The statistics told a similar tale related to regular Bible reading and small group participation. Among weekly Bible readers, 10% decided to stop attending during the pandemic. For those who read it less frequently, 19% made that choice. Of those in a small group prior to the pandemic, 9% chose to quit attending church services compared to 16% of those not in small group.
4. Certain groups are more likely to have quit attending
Perhaps unsurprisingly due to increased health risks, adults who are 65 and older are much less likely to attend at least monthly now (32%) than before the pandemic (41%), according to the IFS analysis. The largest age demographic drop, however, happened among young adults. In 2019, 36% of 18- to 34-year-olds attended church at least once or twice a month. That has fallen to just 26% now.The largest church attendance drop from before the pandemic until now is among young adults, according to @FamStudies analysis. In 2019, 36% attended church at least once or twice a month. That's dropped to 26%. Click To Tweet
While every demographic group has seen declines, the drop has been most pronounced among Black churchgoers. Prior to the pandemic Black Americans were by far the group most likely to attend religious services regularly, with 45% attending at least monthly, according to IFS. Today, 30% of Black Americans attend, similar to the current rates among white (27%) and Hispanic Americans (31%).
5. Small churches faced unique challenges with increased flexibility and some success.
Some reports indicate small churches may be struggling because of the pandemic, particularly regarding finances. Larger churches were more likely to apply for and receive government assistance through pandemic related programs. Half of churches with 200 or more in attendance applied for aid, while only 33% of those with fewer than 50 people did so, according to an April 2020 Lifeway Research study.
Small churches were also less likely to have embraced online giving prior to the pandemic. A 2017 Lifeway Research study found 74% of churches with 250 or more attendees offered digital giving, while only 23% of churches with 100 or fewer did the same.Almost 1 in 4 small church pastors (23%) say they were close to pre-pandemic attendance by August 2021, according to Lifeway Research. One in 5 (19%) even report having grown since January 2020. Click To Tweet
Both large and small churches are dealing with fewer Americans giving to churches. Gallup found giving to religious organizations has declined the past two decades. More than 3 in 5 Americans (62%) say they donated to religious causes in 2001. Today, that number has fallen to 44%.
Still, small churches, with their small budgets, are more likely to have more weeks of operating reserves on hand than larger congregations, according to a 2016 Lifeway Research study.
Additionally, churches with pre-COVID attendance of fewer than 50 people were more likely to report attendance back to or exceeding previous levels in August 2021, according to Lifeway Research. Almost 1 in 4 small church pastors (23%) say they had 90% to 100% of pre-pandemic attendance last summer. One in 5 (19%) even report having grown since January 2020.
Aaron is a writer for LifewayResearch.com.