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Church Attendance Boom on the Horizon: Vast Majority of U.S. Churchgoers Say They'll Return When Pandemic Ends

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When the threat of COVID-19 ends, church members in the U.S. say they will gather together again with their brothers and sisters in Christ, and many are looking forward to the opportunity.

In a recent study of 1,000 Protestant churches conducted by Nashville-based Lifeway Research, church members said when COVID-19 is no longer an active threat to people's health, 91% plan to attend in-person worship services at least as often as they did before the pandemic.  This includes some 23% who plan to attend even more services than they did previously.

Few regular churchgoers said they will attend less than before (6%), rarely attend (2%), or stop attending in-person services completely (1%).

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Almost all churchgoers (94%) said they greatly value the times they can attend worship services in person with others from their church, the Lifeway study revealed.

"Two-thirds of pastors whose churches were open for in-person worship in January saw the attendance of less than 70% of their January 2020 attendance," said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research. "Many of these pastors are wondering if those who haven't returned ever will. Nine in 10 churchgoers plan to when it is safe to do so."

And the study is also revealing even more good news: 43 percent of young adults, aged 18 to 29, said they will attend church more often after COVID-19 than they did before. 

Church Involvement High, but Watching Services Online Low

In the area of church involvement, Lifeway reports almost 9 in 10 churchgoers (87%) stuck with the same church throughout the pandemic. Few said they switched to another church in the same area (5%), switched churches because of a move (3%), or no longer have a church they consider their own (5%).

Among this group of Protestant churchgoers who attended at least once a month in 2019 and who still have a church, 56% said they attended worship services four times or more in January 2020 prior to the spread of COVID-19. Another 30% attended two or three times, while 7% said they attended once.

In January 2021, however, 51% didn't attend any in-person services—22% said it was because none were offered by their church and 30% chose not to attend their church's in-person services. Around 1 in 5 (21%) said they attended in person four times or more. Slightly fewer (18%) attended two to three times and 7% attended once.

More than 4 in 5 churchgoers (83%) said they watched a live stream of a church service instead of attending in person at least once in 2020. Far more watched via live stream last year than said the same when asked before the pandemic.

"Churches live streaming services during COVID-19 has made this experience commonplace among churchgoers," said McConnell. "Despite the increased exposure to this concept, however, relatively few have made this a weekly habit."

Spiritual Status

Among churchgoers surveyed, 7 in 10 (71%) considered themselves to be a "devout Christian with a strong faith." Around a quarter (23%) said they consider themselves a Christian, but not particularly devout. Fewer said they are a Christian but are not currently practicing the faith (5%).

Most churchgoers (54%) said the events of 2020 caused them to grow closer to God, including 27% who said they became much closer. Another 39% said they stayed about the same. Far fewer (7%) said they grew more distant.

Currently, 11% of churchgoers said they are questioning their faith, while 87% disagree.

"The faith of most churchgoers remains resilient despite a year filled with much uncertainty and fewer options for meeting in person with others from church," said McConnell. "During these trying times, churchgoers were almost eight times more likely to relate to God more than less."

Checked on One Another

Many church members have helped each other and have even reached out beyond their church. Around 2 in 5 (41%) said they have checked on others in their church, while a similar number 38% said people in their church have checked on them. One in 10 said others in their church have helped them with tangible needs. For 15%, the pandemic period has provided an opportunity to share the gospel with someone.

"Like other Americans, churchgoers have seen the effects of COVID-19 first-hand," said McConnell. "Many churchgoers have also felt the benefits of being part of a church as members checked on them or provided assistance."

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