Tuesday, July 20, 2021

What Are We Learning About Post-Covid Church?

By Scott Thumma, PhD

The short answer is not much yet! Since our research project is just in its early stages, and unfortunately the pandemic is still with us, many of the implications for faith communities are still speculative. However, because we have been collecting and tracking many of the surveys of religious life since March 2020, we do have some well-informed guesses. I’ll lay out a few of those below, but to keep updated on what we are finding, follow us on Facebook or Twitter, or subscribe to our newsletter to stay up-to-date on our ongoing research efforts. 

One thing about the pandemic is certain, it is going to be a long-haul disruptive force in congregational life. The experience of the past 18 months has significantly altered our perspectives on and thoughts about virtual encounters and the importance of community life. Likewise, it is likely that we will continue to wrestle with variants, booster shots, and decisions about children being vaccinated for at least another year. This reality is sure to be marked by divided opinions among parishioners – some fearless and others very fearful. 

A recent Pew Research Center survey found the percentage of Americans who say they have actually attended religious services in person in March is a bit higher than it was in July 2020. Nevertheless, attendance was nowhere close to normal then, nor is it now many months later. The study found roughly two-thirds (64%) of congregations were open but with changes due to the pandemic, only 12% were open in the same way as pre-Covid times and 17% were still not open at all.  

Early into the pandemic, in shocking rapid time, a good many congregations had made the switch to virtual worship of some form, instituted a version of online giving, and were holding Zoom committee meetings. It is highly likely that some form of these adaptations is bound to stay in practice for the foreseeable future.

But it is also clear that congregations and individuals in different denominations, regions of the country, racial groups, age ranges, and varying political stances have experienced the virus differently and are responding in diverse ways as they make decisions about when to return, if at all, to physical worship participation.  

Americans are generally increasingly confident that they can safely go to services at a house of worship. Among regular attenders, 76% were very or somewhat confident that they could “safely attend in-person religious services right now without spreading or catching the coronavirus but that left roughly a quarter who were not too or not at all sure about that. 

Faith communities have generally fared better than anticipated financially. Our previous studies found that using online giving actually increased per capita giving amounts by as much as $300 per person. Yet many congregations say they are financially challenged due to pandemic. This is especially true for those congregations under 100 attendees.

Clergy and churches are upbeat and self-congratulatory about surviving intact, about adapting to new ways of worshipping, committees, etc. Nearly all say they embraced new ministry opportunities during the pandemic. Many clergy (84% in a study of Nazarene Church pastors) expressed optimism for the future that their church will emerge stronger from the pandemic. However, other clergy express being exhausted and stressed to the point of considering career changes.

But even as people and worship routines are coming back, sanctuaries are far from the level they were pre-pandemic. The question remains of how many will have dropped the attendance habit, are opting for a Zoom service from their backyard, or have given up on church altogether.  

And based on the recent AP-NORC poll from mid-June 2021, 18% of a random sample of all Americans definitely planned to attend in-person religious services in the coming weeks. Of those persons who attended at least once a month prior to the pandemic, 73% say they will return but over a quarter won’t be back in the near future. Additionally, this poll found that 34% are concerned that pandemic restrictions were lifted too quickly, 44% are avoiding others as much as possible, and 57% were intentionally staying away from large groups – whether vaccinated or not.

What might some of the implications of this pandemic skittishness/hesitancy be for faith communities? There’s definitely no consensus among church leaders—or even within a congregation—on when we’re in the clear from the virus. Even so, many of us will be waiting for a signal that this season of our spiritual lives has come to a close so that a new one can begin. In another post, I discuss some of the possible changes that might come post-pandemic. However, follow our research over the coming years to get an even more accurate picture.