Instead of radical changes among all churchgoers, the pandemic most likely significantly altered the habits of less frequent church attendees.
By Aaron Earls
After many churches closed their doors during the COVID-19 pandemic, many Americans have not walked back through them since.
A new report found a third of Americans (33%) say they never attend religious services. That’s up from a quarter of adults (25%) prior to the pandemic.
Consequently, those who regularly attended dropped from 26% to 24%, according to the Survey Center on American Life study. The percentage of occasional church attendees also fell two percentage points—10% to 8%. And infrequent attendees dropped from 39% to 36%.A third of Americans (33%) now say they never attend religious services, up from a quarter of adults (25%) prior to the pandemic, according to a Survey Center on American Life study. Click To Tweet
The study surveyed 9,425 U.S. adults before the pandemic and again in spring 2022, tracking changes in Americans’ religious identification and practices.
Few people moved from attending regularly to never attending again. Most of those who became non-attenders during the pandemic were those who attended infrequently before.
The pandemic likely fully severed the loosest connections with the church, according to Daniel Cox, one of the authors of the study and a senior fellow in polling and public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute.
“These were the folks that were more on the fringes to begin with,” Cox told Religion News Service. “They didn’t need much of a push or a nudge, just to be done completely.”
This happened most often in groups that were already attending less frequently. “Rather than completely upending established patterns, the pandemic accelerated ongoing trends in religious change,” the report concludes.
“Young people, those who are single, and self-identified liberals ceased attending religious services at all at much higher rates than other Americans did,” the report says. “Even before the pandemic, these groups were experiencing the most dramatic declines in religious membership, practice, and identity.”
Three in 10 adults 18-29 (30%) say they attend less frequently now than they did prior to the pandemic. This includes 6% who say they attend much less often.3 in 10 adults 18-29 say they attend church less frequently now than before the pandemic, including 6% who say they go much less often, according to a Survey Center on American Life study. Click To Tweet
By contrast, groups that are more likely to attend church—older adults, political conservatives, those with more formal education, and those who are married—saw smaller attendance drops. Only 16% of those 65 and older say they’re attending less often.
Specific religious groups are also faring better than others. Prior to the pandemic, 6% of self-identified white evangelical Christians said they never attended church. Now, 10% say the same. Around 1 in 6 (17%) say they are attending less frequently.
Among self-identified white mainline Protestants, 17% never attended before the COVID-19 pandemic. Today, 24% do not attend at all. More than 1 in 5 say they now attend less frequently than they did prior.
A Lifeway Research study of U.S. Protestant churches found similar attendance drops and a slower recovery among mainline congregations. On average, by fall 2022, churches were at 85% of their worship service attendance in January 2020, just prior to the pandemic.
Mainline pastors (32%) are more likely than their evangelical counterparts (24%) to say their attendance is between 50 and 70% of what it was before the pandemic. Evangelical pastors (29%) are almost twice as likely as mainline pastors (16%) to say their congregation has actually grown since January 2020.
While religious practice changed significantly during the pandemic, religious identification remained stable, according to the Survey Center on American Life study. The religiously unaffiliated continued to make up 25% of the population, while every religious group identified in the study stayed within one point of their pre-pandemic percentage.
The drop in church attendees may be worrisome for churches, but the steady affiliation numbers point to some silver linings. The pandemic did not bring about a rapid secularization and rejection of Christian identity in the U.S. It changed people’s churchgoing habits, and many haven’t changed them back.“The pandemic did not bring about a rapid secularization and rejection of Christian identity in the U.S. It changed people's churchgoing habits, and many haven’t changed them back.” — @WardrobeDoor Click To Tweet
Congregations often prepare for and work to prevent the all-too-common occurrence of teenagers dropping out of church when they become young adults. While the pandemic did not offer the same opportunity for preparation, there are ways the new church dropout—those who’ve stopped attending since the pandemic—resemble the young adult dropouts. As a result, there are steps churches can take to win back some who now attend less frequently but still maintain their Christian identity and have some connections to the church.
Additionally, though the percentages were small, there were some who went from never attending before the pandemic to now attending regularly, according to the Survey Center on American Life study. Churches should continue not only reaching out to those who’ve drifted away from their congregation but also to those who’ve never been a part of any church. We should never doubt God’s ability and desire to save those far from Him and bring them into His family.
Aaron is the senior writer at Lifeway Research.