Concerns about spiking COVID-19 cases led to a rise in the number of U.S. churches canceling in-person gatherings in January, a new Lifeway Research study shows.
Meanwhile, the new research offers some of the most detailed data yet about how Protestant churches are handling small groups, youth ministry and children’s ministry during the pandemic. And it found that a greater percentage of pastors now have someone in their congregation who has died due to COVID.
The survey comes after almost a year of controversial U.S. Supreme Court cases involving the rights of religious groups to hold indoor gatherings during the pandemic despite public health mandates. On Feb. 5, justices ruled 6-3 that California churches should not have been restricted as severely as they had been.
But, of late, it is the winter surge in coronavirus infections influencing many churches’ decisions around in-person gatherings — even as more people are being vaccinated.
“Churches continue to evaluate when to meet in person based on local conditions and cases within their congregation,” Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research, said in an online summary of the study. “Even when a church determines it’s safe to meet, their individual members will return on their own timetable.”
The faith-based research organization reported that 76% of the Protestant pastors it surveyed reported holding in-person services last month, down from 87% in September 2020.
Among those holding in-person worship in January, 31% said attendance remained less than half of what it was a year before, while 37% reported attendance between 50% and 70%. Another three in 10 said attendance was about normal at 70% to 100%, and only 2% saw an increase from 12 months ago.
Face to face with the pandemic
The survey also queried ministers about the rate and impact of coronavirus infections among their congregants. “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,” Lifeway Research reported.
About 88% of pastors said someone who attends their church had been diagnosed with COVID-19 in January, compared to 28% in July 2020. Nearly three in 10, or 29%, said a member had died from the disease, versus 5% last summer, the study found.
“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%).”
Generationally, Lifeway added, clergy 18 to 44 years old reported losing a church member to the pandemic most frequently (41%) followed by pastors in Southern states (38%).
“The respect pastors in specific regions had last summer for the devastation of this pandemic has now spread throughout the nation,” McConnell said. “For a growing number, the loss of life has reached a dear saint or regular attendee in their own congregation.”
Opportunities to serve
Despite the hardships imposed on congregations by the coronavirus outbreak, pastors told Lifeway the pandemic has created new opportunities to serve those in need.
“Almost all pastors (90%) say people in their church have helped each other with tangible needs during the pandemic, while almost three in four (73%) report attendees meeting tangible needs in the community connected to the pandemic.”
The survey also found that most churches (88%) saw first-time visitors attend services during the pandemic, Lifeway added.
Researchers also learned that most small-group meetings have continued to function throughout the coronavirus outbreak. “Pastors estimate more than a third of groups (36%) are meeting in person, while 25% are meeting online or by phone. Another third of church classes are not currently meeting, and 6% of classes no longer exist.”
Those numbers varied among different Christian groups, Lifeway added, with mainline pastors (56%) being more likely than their evangelical counterparts (26%) to say none of their small groups are meeting in person.
“Each group of adults faces the same questions as the church about when and how to meet,” McConnell said. “Technology has allowed a majority to meet in some form, but many are waiting or need help knowing how to restart.”
When will we meet again?
Questions about how and when to resume gatherings are being heavily considered in congregations where most small groups are not meeting. Lifeway found that close to a quarter of pastors believe those resumptions will occur either in March, April or May, while 17% see a return of small groups during the summer and 20% predict the fall. Another 36% were uncertain.
The groups that have been continuing to gather at higher rates are those related to students and children, Lifeway said. “Around a third (32%) of pastors who had student ministries before the pandemic say all of their student ministry activities now are meeting in person. A quarter (25%) say only some activities are in-person. Another 22% say the only activities currently happening are online. Slightly fewer (21%) say they aren’t holding any student activities in-person or online now.”