by Jorge Gomez • 5 min read
Nearly three years after the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, things are looking positive for houses of worship in America. A recent study found that churches are bouncing back from the unprecedented crisis they faced. But, there are still serious challenges for congregations to overcome.
The Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford International University published its “Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations” survey. It tracks changes over time as congregations emerge from the disruption caused by the pandemic. The findings indicate that “the nation’s churches are better off than they were a year or two ago.”
We shouldn’t forget, however, that houses of worship endured chilling attacks on their constitutional rights during the pandemic. Government placed heavy restraints on churches and religious services, treating them more harshly than secular businesses and other gatherings. In some cases, officials threatened pastors with arrest, harassed congregants for safely gathering for in-person worship, and even told Americans their rights were “suspended.” This created a constitutional crisis for religious communities across the country.
So, are churches finally getting back to normal? Here’s what they found:
More People in the Pews
The numbers show a 15% increase in worship attendance from the summer of 2021. This includes virtual and in-person attendance.
According to the study, “33% of churches are now above where they were pre-pandemic,” What’s more, 16% of current attendees are new to the congregation since 2020, which follows a decades-long pattern that shows an average increase of about 5% of new attenders each year.
However, in-person worship attendance is generally still below pre-pandemic levels. Looking at in-person figures only, pre-pandemic worship attendance showed a median of 65 people in 2020, whereas the 2023 survey had a median of 60 attendees.
Throughout the pandemic, houses of worship were incredibly flexible. When they could not meet in-person, they quickly adapted by taking their services online or gathering in parking lots in their cars to listen to sermons on a radio broadcast.
Just 20% of churches said they streamed worship in 2019. Today, 73% do. More churches are also using electronic or online giving now, and are also using it with greater emphasis. Only 31% of churches reported using online giving in 2015 and just 8% did so a lot. Now, 67% do and nearly half (48%) use this method a lot.
Another reassuring bright spot is a rebound in the percentage of the congregation that volunteers regularly. The numbers show a significant recovery of the percent of volunteers over the past year to an average of 35% of regular participants in 2023. That’s a 20% increase compared 2020, when only 15% were volunteering. The percentage is also much closer to the pre-pandemic level of 40%.
According to the study, “combining these trends with a steady influx of new participants at roughly 5% a year may suggest that while churches have lost former members, those who remained, alongside recent arrivals, seem to be rising to the occasion and filling in the gaps with a greater sense of commitment.”
We’re seeing many encouraging and positive trends. But the numbers still show many challenges for churches to overcome.
The report states that “even given the rebounding attendance and level of optimism, the broad pattern of considerable membership decline remains ever-present.” Churches not only face the challenge of declining size, but also aging membership and leaders, as well as less appeal with younger generations. Likewise, the pandemic might well have intensified these pressures for some churches, especially those that were already struggling to survive.
It’s unclear how the pandemic will impact American houses of worship in the long-term. Churches may not be fully back to normal quite yet, but they are further along this path than they have been in the last two years. One thing is certain: religious freedom will always be essential. Our nation cannot flourish without the free exercise of religion. Under the Constitution, the right to gather for worship must be respected and protected.