COVID’s Impact on American Religion

COVID’s Impact on American Religion January 17, 2023

Have churches recovered from COVID?  One out of three closed down completely during the lockdown of 2020, while most of the others switched to online services.  Now that the panic has died down, has attendance and religious commitment come back to pre-pandemic levels?  Two studies give a mixed report.

Researchers with the Survey Center on American Life measured religious affiliation and attendance both before the pandemic and afterwards, surveying the same individuals both times.  The study was written up by Lindsey Witt-Swanson, Jennifer Benz and Daniel A. Cox in Faith After the Pandemic: How COVID-19 Changed American Religion.

Overall, church attendance is lower than it was before the COVID shutdowns.  Only 43% of churchgoers say that attendance in their congregations is back to normal.  Before the pandemic, 25% of Americans said that they never attend religious services.  In 2022, 33% said they never attend.

And yet, those who attended church regularly before are mostly back.  In fact, those who attended only occasionally are still attending occasionally.   Nearly all of the drop-off has come from people who only attended rarely, and now they are not attending at all.

The study slices and dices the data, finding that there was little change among white evangelicals, white Catholics, Mormons, adults 65 and over, and adults with a college degree. The demographics with the largest decline in attendance were white mainline Protestants, black Protestants, Hispanic Catholics, adults under 50, and adults with less than a college degree.

The report sums up the findings:

The increase in Americans who report never attending religious services was largely driven by those who had sporadic attendance patterns before the pandemic. Nearly all Americans who have shifted to no longer attending religious services at all were those who infrequently attended before the pandemic. Few Americans who were regularly attending before the pandemic report that they no longer attend at all. And few of those who were occasionally attending services before the pandemic report that they do not attend anymore.

So it would seem that churches for the most part have pulled through the COVID shutdown fairly well, despite losing some inactive members and less-engaged visitors.

I do have a couple of questions about this study.  These seem to be the same trends that were operating before COVID, with those who hardly ever went to church and mainline liberal Protestants taking the next step of giving up Christianity entirely to become “Nones.”  It wasn’t clear to me how the study was able to pinpoint COVID as the cause of these defections, which may have happened anyway.

Also, many if not most churches that went to online services have continued to do so, even as they now meet in person.  Our little congregation might have 30 people in attendance, but we regularly have 25 people watching online.  I’m not sure who these folks are–I suppose shut ins, travelers, the sick, friends of the church–but they are making an effort to be with us.  Watching online is no substitute for actual attendance, of course, but it isn’t nothing.  It doesn’t seem that the study factored in this kind of involvement, but this deserves further study.

This particular study looked at religious behavior as evidence by church attendance.  An earlier survey from Pew Research, taken during the pandemic in 2020, studied the impact of COVID on people’s faith.  Since many American who do not go to church still profess the Christian faith, these are two different topics.

This study found that 28% of Americans said that the COVID epidemic has strengthened their personal faith.  Among those who said that religion played a “very important” part in their lives, the number was 45%.  And even among those who said they weren’t very religious, over one in ten, 11%, said that the COVID ordeal strengthened their faith.

Not only that, 41% of Americans said that their relationship with their immediate family members has become stronger as a result of the COVID outbreak.  And half of 18-29 year olds, 50%, say that COVID has strengthened their family relationships.


Image by Romy from Pixabay





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