By Aaron Earls
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — 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.
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.
Small group survival
When asked to estimate what percentage of small groups or Sunday school classes that existed in their church before the pandemic are currently meeting, have stopped meeting temporarily, or no longer exist, pastors say most of their church’s small groups (62%) are still meeting in some way.
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.
Mainline pastors (56%) are more than twice as likely as evangelical pastors (26%) to say none of their groups are meeting in person.
“Each group of adults faces the same questions as the church about when and how to meet,” said McConnell. “Technology has allowed a majority to meet in some form, but many are waiting or need help knowing how to restart.”
More than a third of pastors (38%) say none of their small groups are meeting in person. Around 3 in 10 (30%) say most of their groups are in-person.
Some churches have not been able to adapt to using technology to meet, as 41% of pastors say none of their groups are meeting online or by phone.
One in 5 pastors (20%) report having a small group end since the start of the pandemic. Fewer than 1 in 20 (4%) say most of their groups no longer exist at all.
Among the pastors of churches where a majority of adult small groups are not meeting, there remains significant questions about when most groups will start meeting again. Only 3% believe that will happen this month. Nearly a quarter (22%) think sometime in March, April or May.
Others are looking for this summer (17%) or the fall (20%) before most groups will start back. More than a third (36%) say they are not sure when most groups will start to meet again.
Varied approach to student and kids’ ministries
Among churches that had student ministry activities prior to the pandemic, 4 in 5 are meeting in some way, and most are holding some in-person activities.
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.
Among those that are holding some in-person gatherings, more than 3 in 4 (77%) say their attendance is at least half what it was prior to the pandemic, including 5% who say they’ve grown.
For those that aren’t meeting at all or only online, more than a quarter (28%) expect to resume in-person student ministry activities by May. Others are aiming for this summer (18%), this fall (19%) or next year (4%). Around 3 in 10 (31%) say they’re not sure when they’ll start meeting in person again.
Kids’ ministries are similarly divided in how they are approaching the pandemic and future planning, though pastors are more likely to say they aren’t having any kids’ activities.
Among pastors who say their church had kids’ ministry activities prior to the pandemic, 25% say all of their activities are in person, and another 24% say some events are in-person. One in 5 (21%) say the only activities happening now are online, while 30% aren’t having any kids’ ministry activities currently.
For those that are hosting in-person kids’ activities, 71% say they have at least half of their pre-pandemic attendance, including 2% who say they have more now than they did prior to the pandemic.
Among the kid ministries not meeting at all or holding only online activities, 25% expect to resume in-person events by the end of spring, 17% say this summer, 26% are looking toward this fall, and 1% aim for 2022. Three in 10 pastors are not sure when they’ll start back in-person kids’ ministry activities.
Aaron Earls is a writer for Lifeway Christian Resources.
The online survey of 430 Protestant pastors was conducted Feb. 1-11, 2021. Invitations were emailed to the Lifeway Research Pastor Panel followed by two reminders. The probability sample of Protestant churches was created by phone recruiting by Lifeway Research using random samples selected from all Protestant churches. Pastors who agree to be contacted by email for future surveys make up this Lifeway Research Pastor Panel.
Each survey was completed by the senior or sole pastor or a minister at the church. Responses were weighted by church average attendance, region, ethnicity of pastor and whether the pastor self-identified as evangelical or mainline to more accurately reflect the population.
The final sample is 430 usable surveys. The sample provides 95% confidence that the sampling error does not exceed plus or minus 6.2% This margin of error accounts for the effect of weighting. Margins of error are higher in sub-groups.
Comparisons are made to a survey using the same methodology conducted July 20-22, 2020 with 443 completes. Comparisons are made to a survey conducted Sept. 2 – Oct. 1, 2020 using both an online sample using the same methodology and phone using random sampling with 1,007 completes (502 by phone, 505 online).
About Lifeway Research
Lifeway Research is a Nashville-based, evangelical research firm that specializes in surveys about faith in culture and matters that affect churches.
About Lifeway Christian Resources
In operation since 1891, Lifeway Christian Resources is one of the leading providers of Christian resources, including Bibles, books, Bible studies, Christian music and movies, VBS, and church supplies, as well as camps and events for all ages. Lifeway is the world’s largest provider of Spanish Bibles. Headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee, Lifeway receives no denominational funding and operates as a self-supporting nonprofit.