A glimpse of people’s church experience during COVID and their intentions for church participation post-COVID
Whether you’re seeing encouraging or discouraging signs in your church as the pandemic wanes, it is important to remember that a church’s numbers or how full the room feels is the result of numerous individual journeys.
Early in 2021, Lifeway Research surveyed 1,000 U.S. churchgoers to better understand these journeys. This provides us with a glimpse of people’s church experience during COVID and their intentions for church participation post-COVID. And there are numerous encouraging things in their responses.
During COVID, Leaders Led and Congregations Followed.
Amid COVID-19, the majority in the typical congregation tried the things leaders in their church asked them to try. Most churches closed at some point during the pandemic, including many that stayed closed for months. But many churches also tried new things:
• 85% of churchgoers say their church livestreamed worship services
• 76% of churches posted worship service videos people could watch late
• 52% offered online Bible studies for adults
• 39% offered outdoor worship services
• 30% offered drive-in worship services
That represents a lot of innovation from large numbers of churches led by pastors who admitted they didn’t know if any of it would work. One pastor early in the pandemic described his greatest pressure point as, “wanting to lead well and not having feedback as to how effectively or ineffectively I am leading.”
As another was trying things, he admitted it was a challenge, “constantly trying to determine if we’re doing things the right way or the best way possible.”
In hindsight, churchgoers not only recognize the things their leaders were doing, but for all six of the innovations above, the majority of churchgoers in those churches tried that form of participation. They did not all continue. They surely were not all present the same week, but they responded to their church’s innovation by at least trying it.
Only 12% of churchgoers say they are ashamed of how their church has responded during the COVID-19 pandemic. Yes, pastors will tell you they have heard from every one of these naysayers. But it is important to note that they were a loud but small minority.
Instead, 86% of churchgoers agree they are proud of how their church has responded during the COVID-19 pandemic. The significance of that support cannot be overstated. Despite vast differences in how churches responded, how long they were closed, and their technological capabilities, pastors had support from an overwhelming majority of their churchgoers.
This should encourage weary pastors and church leaders. A large majority of your people have been following your lead the whole time. You couldn’t see them. You didn’t hear from all of these supporters. You still may not be sure what worked. But you have a body of believers ready to face this next season with you.
Habits are not rebuilt in a day
It will take time and effort to rebuild spiritual routines and rekindle relationships. These important habits include participating in the sacraments of the local church and participating in the discipleship process offered by one’s church.
The most obvious disruption to spiritual habits was attending worship services in person. Whether the church was closed, or individuals were taking precautions, many stopped attending for a period of time. Fifty-seven percent of churchgoers said they participated in in-person worship services at their own church less in 2020 than in 2019.
At the beginning of 2021, the coronavirus was still spreading rapidly despite precautions. In January, 37% of churchgoers participated in a small Bible study class or group of adults. Twenty-nine percent were in a church that did not offer small groups that month and 34% chose not to attend any of the groups their church did offer. Participation in early 2021 was much lower than the 59% that participated in January of 2020.
However, churches that communicate direction and processes are already seeing results. For example, 71% of churchgoers agree their church communicates it is important for every adult to be involved in a small class or group. This includes 31% who strongly agree.
In January 2021, among those who strongly agree their church communicates the importance of being in a group, 57% attended a group that month. That is almost the level of participation in the average church before the pandemic! In contrast, among those churchgoers who somewhat agree, 35% attended a small group. Only 22% and 14% attended among those who somewhat disagree and strongly disagree.
Church leaders have great influence on the habits people build. There are certainly limitations on this influence, and it must be used wisely. But directing people toward biblical goals and providing steps to get there is both desired by and helpful to a congregation where the majority suspended some of these healthy habits.
Churchgoers grew in Christ during the pandemic
Throughout the pandemic God was at work among churchgoers. While specific church activities stopped, the Spirit continued to lead His people. The majority of churchgoers (54%), say they grew closer to God during the pandemic. This includes 27% who became much closer to God and 27% who say they became closer to God.
This growth may be seen in victory over sin, people they have forgiven, time spent with God, turning from idols that had crept into their lives, and other personal expressions of being a child of God. Others may be convicted that they need to serve God’s people in new ways. Regardless, the things God has done among most churchgoers during the pandemic should benefit the local body of Christ.
Church leaders should be asking their people how God has worked in their lives. Take time to listen to see how you can celebrate with them and support them. Look for ways to join God’s activity.
Churchgoers want to reengage in their church
When so many people have been out of sight during the pandemic, it has been easy for leaders to wonder and outright worry about how many would be coming back. In February of 2021, 87% of churchgoers indicated their church today is the same church they attended in January of 2020. Five percent say they switched to another church in the area, 3% switched churches because they moved, and 5% say they no longer have a church.
For many pastors, having 87% still on board is a relief. No one should take personally the 3% who moved out of the area. And 5% are still in play. As you reach out to those you are not seeing in attendance, you may interact with some of these who don’t feel they have a church anymore. Take the opportunity to help them reengage.
While we celebrate that the numbers exiting are not large, these losses can still be painful. The small percentage could include leaders, givers, and encouragers who will be missed.
After a year when it was not always possible, 94% of pre-pandemic churchgoers greatly value the times they can attend worship services in person with others from their church. The challenge is less about helping people know that worship together matters and more about helping people live out what they say they value.
Among all those who attended church in a typical month before the pandemic, 91% plan to attend worship services in person as often or more than they did prior to the pandemic once COVID is no longer an active threat.
As a researcher, I must acknowledge that for some people this is an aspirational response. They want to attend. They aspire to attend the same or more often.
But much like attending church after you move, it doesn’t just happen automatically. Resuming a habit of worshiping at church can happen fairly easily when there is good communication and some loving encouragement. A call, a text, a personal email letting someone know they have been missed may be all it takes. Those who assume that those who are not present are gone, are missing the intentions of the vast majority of pre-pandemic churchgoers. They need help and encouragement to make this journey back into regular fellowship. There is a reason that the Apostle Paul included words of encouragement in each letter to a church. As human beings we often know and agree what is best, but we still need a loving nudge from others to actually do it.
First published on LifewayResearch.com. Used by permission.