Religious Education During the Pandemic: A Tale of Challenge and Creativity

With summer just around the corner, many churches are gearing up for the return of in-person Vacation Bible School. However, a new study from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research shows that although most surveyed congregations (90%) have already returned to face-to-face worship, religious education programming is still ‘far from normal.’ 

In Hartford Institute’s third report examining how U.S. congregations are navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, which included 615 responses from churches in 31 Christian denominational groups, half of congregations said they felt the pandemic had caused major disruption to their educational programs. This includes Sunday School, VBS, church day camps and adult education. Smaller churches, those in the mainline tradition, and churches that did not quickly return to a modified in-person education program suffered more during the past two years. 

Results showed that virtual religious education did not work well for children, though it had benefits in adult educational efforts. Analysis showed that those who closed their programs had the greatest decline in involvement even once they restarted, and churches that moved religious education online lost a higher percentage of participants than churches who modified their efforts with safety protocols but continued meeting in person either outdoors or in small groups. 

For children’s programs, 82% of both the Catholic/Orthodox and Evangelical churches continued meeting in-person during the pandemic, often with modifications. For youth religious education, 75% of Catholic/Orthodox and 68% of Evangelical congregations continued in-person meetings whereas only 29% of Mainline churches did so. 

Not surprisingly, smaller churches (those under 100 attendees) were most likely to report both not having children and youth programming, as well as discontinuing children and youth programming during the pandemic and presently. This was, in part, due to a decline in volunteers helping with leadership responsibilities. 

Prior to the pandemic, 36% of churches offered VBS and/or church day camps during the summer. In 2020, that number dropped to 17% of congregations, and while that number rebounded back to 36% in summer 2021, currently only 31% of churches plan to offer VBS in 2022. 

“Even in the midst of these challenges, religious education leaders showed considerable originality using online tools, strengthening at home DIY efforts, hosting intergenerational activities with COVID precautions, and creating novel approaches like Pizza Church or Dungeons and Dragons clubs,” said Principal Investigator Scott Thumma. 

The Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations: Innovation Amidst and Beyond Covid-19 study is a collaborative, five-year research project funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. and led by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford International University for Religion and Peace. 

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