Churches in the United States are struggling to return to attendance levels seen prior to COVID lockdowns shutting their doors and forcing online services, according to a new Lifeway Research poll.
The survey, released last week, was conducted with 1,000 Protestant pastors from September 6-30 from a random sample of Protestant churches. The survey revealed that despite churches failing to return to pre-lockdown levels, the majority had resumed in-person worship services.
“While there are a handful of exceptions, we can definitively say that churches in the U.S. have reopened,” said Lifeway Research executive director Scott McConnell. “While masks began to rapidly disappear in many settings in 2022, churchgoers have not reappeared quite as fast.”
Nearly 100% of churches met in person in August 2022, according to the report. That number is up from 75% in July 2020 and 98% in August of last year. In April 2020, around the time the lockdowns began in the United States, the number of churches meeting in person dropped as low as 10%, according to Lifeway Research.
While almost all church doors are open for in-person worship, not all congregants have returned. Attendance in churches is at 85% of what it was in January 2020, before the lockdowns began. That’s up from 73% in August of 2021 and a low of 60% in January 2021, meaning current church attendance is at the highest level in the last two years.
Pastors ages 65 and older were more likely to report attendance between 30 to 50% of January 2020 levels, compared to pastors between 18 and 55 years of age who were more likely to report attendance greater than pre-lockdown levels. Female and black pastors were also more likely to report lower attendance levels than before the lockdowns. Additionally, Evangelical pastors were more likely, at 29%, to report higher attendance compared to pre-lockdown levels than mainline pastors, at 16%.
The responses also varied on region and denomination, showing pastors in the Midwest and South were more likely to report higher attendance than pastors in the Northeast. Baptists, Pentecostals, and Non-Denominational pastors were more likely to report greater attendance levels compared to January 2020 than Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterian/Reformed and Christian/Church of Christ pastors.
In an op-ed in The Christian Post from February titled “5 Reasons Your Current Church Attendance Is The New Normal”, Thom Rainer, the former president of Lifeway Research and current CEO of Church Answers, outlined various reasons for struggling church attendance. Some reasons Rainer gave include having broken the habit of attending church, “digital attendees” who he says have dropped out entirely, and that some of those who no longer attend were already leaning towards exiting the church.
“She really likes to attend the services in her casual clothes or pajamas,” Rainer wrote of a friend who attends church digitally.
Rainer asked her how long it had been since attending a service digitally, and “she sheepishly admitted it had been about three months,” he said. “She is representative of a new and growing group called ‘the inactive digitals.’”
According to a recent Pew Research study, the American Christian population could drop below 50% by 2070 based on current trends.