Most churches have found a way to continue meeting despite the ongoing pandemic, but fewer met in person in January as COVID-19 cases spiked across the country.
A new study from Nashville-based Lifeway Research found 76% of U.S. Protestant pastors say their churches met in person in January, down from 87% who said the same in September.
Even among those who are holding in-person services, few are near pre-pandemic attendance levels. Around 3 in 10 pastors (31%) say their attendance in January 2021 is less than half what it was in January 2020, months before the coronavirus prompted national lockdowns.
Slightly more (37%) note attendance between 50% and 70%. Another 3 in 10 say attendance is close to normal (70%-100%). Few (2%) have grown in their in-person attendance compared to one year ago.
“Churches continue to evaluate when to meet in person based on local conditions and cases within their congregation,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research. “Even when a church determines it’s safe to meet, their individual members will return on their own timetable.”
Mainline pastors (39%) are more than three times as likely as evangelical pastors (12%) to say they did not meet in person in January.
COVID challenges and opportunities
Compared to last summer, the winter spike of COVID-19 cases brought more pastors face-to-face with the pandemic. Three times as many now say someone in their church has been diagnosed with COVID-19, and almost six times as many pastors report an attendee dying from it.
Almost 9 in 10 Protestant pastors (88%) say a church attendee has been diagnosed with COVID-19, up from 28% in July 2020. Close to 3 in 10 (29%) say a member died from COVID-19, compared to 5% last summer.
Not surprisingly, pastors of churches with 200 or more in attendance are the most likely to say someone in their congregation died from COVID-19 (51%), while pastors of churches with fewer than 50 are the least likely (15%).
Younger pastors (18- to 44-years-old) are the most likely to have lost a church attendee to the coronavirus (41%), as well as pastors in the South (38%).
“The respect pastors in specific regions had last summer for the devastation of this pandemic has now spread throughout the nation,” said McConnell. “For a growing number, the loss of life has reached a dear saint or regular attendee in their own congregation.”
Much of the financial challenges remain the same. Similar numbers from July 2020 say an attendee lost their job (50%) and had income impacted by reduced work hours (72%) at any time during the coronavirus pandemic.
Despite those difficulties, pastors say the pandemic has provided opportunities for their church to serve others and even reach new people.
Almost all pastors (90%) say people in their church have helped each other with tangible needs during the pandemic, while almost 3 in 4 (73%) report attendees meeting tangible needs in the community connected to the pandemic.
Close to 9 in 10 pastors (88%) say new people who have not attended their church in the past have attended or connected online during the pandemic. A quarter (25%) say an attendee has seen someone make a commitment to follow Christ after sharing the gospel.
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Source: LifeWay Research