As churches reopen in some parts of the country, what changes can pastors expect? And, in general, what will church life be like for the average congregation in America after the pandemic? A new survey from the Center for Bible Engagement (CBE) anticipates some key trends that churches will experience. Here are three that will affect most congregations coast to coast: (1) a dip in weekly worship attendance among regular weekly attenders, (2) an increase in online attendance when the pandemic ends , and (3) an increase in traffic from occasional attenders.
Arnie Cole, CEO of Back to the Bible and Director of Research for the CBE, says churches can "expect lots of shuffling in the pews" and innovative new ways of connecting with each other.
"In our previous research among pastors and regular church attenders, we found that the vast majority of regular attenders are participating in online worship services during the COVID-19 pandemic," Cole says. "And one-third anticipate their in-person church attendance will not go back to pre-pandemic rates."
Cole has learned from earlier congregation studies that 60 to 80% of the people sitting in the pews on a given Sunday are people who attend every week. The remaining 20 to 40% do so at most once or twice a month. "With this in mind we anticipate that many churches will see a dip in weekly worship attendance, post-pandemic, and those with the highest concentrations of regular weekly attenders will see the largest decreases," he explains. "But on the positive side, churches can expect to see a portion of their occasional attenders more often."
Cole reports that 68% are participating in online worship services during the lock down period. Most (77%) anticipate that their church attendance will be the same after the pandemic. A minority (16%) expect to attend more often and 7% anticipate attending less. Considering the data for both regular and occasional attenders, most churches can expect a decrease in attendance and a high percentage of people who used to attend only occasionally.
Highlights from CBE's Current Study
The survey consisted of 861 U.S. adults who identify as Christian40% attended church in person at least occasionally before the pandemic.
16% attended church online at least occasionally before the pandemic.
Among the U.S. adults with some connection to church, 68% viewed an online worship service during the pandemic (40% with local church; 11% with non-local church; 18% both)
Among those who attend monthly or a few times a year, 11% to 13% say they will attend less when the pandemic ends.
Among those who attended church in person before, 21 to 44% expect to watch more online when the pandemic ends.
Considering data from all five surveys, we expect most churches will experience a decrease in weekly worship attendance.
Churches that typically have many weekly/regular attenders in the pews on a given Sunday will see the largest decreases.
On the plus side, churches can expect to see more of the occasional attenders.