The State of Church Attendance

We have passed the the one-year mark when Covid-19 disrupted the world and forced us all into a season of quarantine. Twelve months later, with most schools and restaurants reopened, we’ve learned how to go on with life while seeking to mitigate the spread of the disease and protect frontline medical workers from being overwhelmed with cases.

The majority of churches have reopened as well, but ministries geared toward adults, students, and children have lagged behind worship services. Even as vaccinations are on the rise and hospitalizations are falling, pastors are unsure about the future. Here is a snapshot of the latest from Lifeway Research (see all the findings here, and another summary from Aaron Earls.).

General Church Attendance

Most churches in the United States (76%) met in person in January. But that percentage dropped 11% from September 2020, which indicates that the early winter surge of Covid cases led to churches stepping back into a temporary state of being “online only.”

Even though most churches are meeting again, the difference from a year ago is drastic. Of the churches meeting in person, a third of pastors say they are averaging only 50% of their attendance a year before. Another third say their attendance is at least 70% of what it was in January 2020. Within that number, only 8% of pastors say they are 90% or above of their attendance from the first month of 2020. (See the full report for some of the denominational and regional differences.) In short, for the vast majority of churches in the United States, in-person gatherings have resumed, but the number of attendees is significantly lower.

Adult Ministries

Most churches may be meeting again, but small groups and Sunday School classes have been slower to resume. Pastors report only 62% of their small groups/Sunday school classes are currently meeting in some form (36% in person, 25% online, 33% not meeting, 6% no longer exist). A staggering 38% of pastors say that none of their adult small groups are currently meeting in person. Only 21% of pastors say that 76% or more of their adult small groups are meeting in person right now. Smaller churches have been hit harder here, as larger churches (churches with attendance of 200 or more) are more likely to indicate that at least some adult groups are meeting.

Student Ministries

Covid has stunted student ministries around the country. Only 27% of pastors say all of their student ministries are still meeting in person. 17% say none of their student activities have resumed in person or online. And, perhaps most surprisingly, the survey discovered that almost 1 in 5 churches did not have student ministry activities before the pandemic at all.

Among those that had student ministry activities before Covid, 57% of churches with pre-Covid student activities have resumed all or some of these activities in person, and 48% say that current in-person student ministry attendance is less than 70% of pre-Covid attendance.

Kids Ministries

Kids ministry has been more affected than adult and student groups. Only 23% of pastors say all kids ministry activities are meeting in person and 27% say none of their kid’s activities are meeting. (One in 10 churches did not have any kids ministry activities before Covid-19.)

While 49% of churches that have long had kids ministry activities have resumed at least some of their activities in person, 53% of pastors say that current in-person kids ministry attendance is less than 70% of pre-Covid attendance.

Looking Forward

The statistics on Covid hospitalizations and vaccinations continue to improve in the United States. And yet, even with mitigation efforts in place and churches open for worship, pastors are cautious in making bold predictions. Less than half of pastors expect their adult small groups to be meeting by the end of summer 2021, and 36% are unsure. Similar numbers bear out for student ministry and kids ministry as well. Perhaps many pastors have been expecting for more than a year that things were about to get better, only to be forced back into a season of quarantine or temporary closures. Now, they are more cautious with their predictions, yet hopeful that a new season of ministry is on the horizon.

What does this mean for the future? Later this week, I’ll post some thoughts on not rushing to conclusions about what Covid has changed or what the “new normal” will look like.

Trevin Wax

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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