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How the pandemic impacts church involvement

A 2022 summary of trends

In January 2022, the Journal of Religion and Health published a new study on the impact of the pandemic on the faith of Christians in Germany.

Whereas the first Covid-19 wave brought a small revival in spirituality, the second wave was disastrous. During a period of 18 months, the researchers measured the faith of 4,693 people at six specific moments of the pandemic. Between August and November 2021, things went wrong: 21.5% of the respondents gave up on their faith.

According to the researchers, the most obvious cause of this is the waning connection to the church through lockdowns and social distancing.

In our Christian Trendwatcher trend report published in June 2020, this expected shake-out in church attendance was estimated at 25%.

The reflex of churches to start streaming services during the lockdown seems to have done little to prevent this shake-out. This, too, was foreseen in the trend report. Not many churches used the online possibilities effectively for interaction, participation and co-creation, which could have made a positive difference in maintaining community and prayer, as well as in seizing the opportunities for mission the pandemic offered.

What has been the impact of the pandemic on church attendance and volunteering? We monitored a large number of reports and articles on this issue and summarise the trends we found.

CHURCH ATTENDANCE

  • Based on data collected in April and May 2020 by Barna Group, in the USA one in three practicing Christians dropped out of church completely at the beginning of the pandemic. 
  • A new Institute for Family Studies (IFS), also in the USA, showed that over the past two years the share of regular churchgoers is down by 6 percent, from 34 percent in 2019 to 28 percent in 2021, an 18 percent decrease. The decline was strongest among the young, the old and Afro-Americans. There was no difference between conservative, moderate and liberal churches.
  • A portion of churchgoers who are not attending services are afraid. They feel uncomfortable being around crowds. When someone in church tests positive, they back-out. Pastors expressed concern about the wear and tear of the pandemic on people’s emotions. There are also churchgoers who pulled out because of the ‘Zoom fatigue’ that set in with streaming. 
  • Many believers are still navigating the precarious balancing act between in-person gathering and online streaming, while some are looking to switch churches or denominations this year. Others have stopped going to church altogether.
  • There are those who attend multiple churches, often via virtual platforms, a practice which intensified last year. In the summer of 2020, just a few short months into the pandemic, more than one in three practicing Christians – those for whom church engagement is a priority – were streaming services from churches other than the one they were formally committed to.
  • The pandemic has propelled people toward life change of all kinds over the past two years, including career shifts, new relationships, and relocation. Some changes have been out of necessity and some out of new priorities. This has played out with church choices as well. For those who were already struggling with their church, the pandemic served as a catalyst to begin exploring other options. 
  • On a positive note, for many people the sustained isolation of the pandemic heightened their desire for connection and spiritual community. One church reported a strong increase of singles living alone that wanted to discover who God is. 
  • Others realised in the pandemic that they lived too far from their church, and started looking for fellowship with Christians closer to home, in their own neighbourhood. 
  • It is impossible to analyse the topic of church switching during the pandemic without acknowledging the backdrop of national polarisation on issues ranging from masking and vaccination to politics. Frequently, pastors have felt ill-equipped to address these issues in ways that satisfy members representing a wide spectrum of viewpoints. One pastor described the turbulence of the last two years as “compounded national trauma that has caused decision fatigue in pastors." 
  • Churches are often losing the “back row,” but also a number of those who were highly involved and reevaluated their busy lives, preferring a more moderate involvement. 
  • The churches that did relatively well in the pandemic where those that focused on small-group discipleship when in-person services were paused.
  • Not all pastors are concerned about these migrating members. One pastor believes this time of transition during the pandemic could be preparing the church for a new phase of growth ahead. He said: “Maybe God is placing people where they need to be for his kingdom to grow in post-pandemic times.” 
  • Overall, church attendance has not recovered to pre-Covid levels in many churches, but it is very hard to prognosticate on what long-term effects the pandemic will have. As more Covid-19 vaccines and treatments become available, the burning question is whether there will be a rebound in church attendance after the pandemic finally passes.
  • From a public health perspective it would certainly be good if people sticked to their church community. Earlier research indicated that church attendance is also linked to having a better social support network, and leads to less depression, lower suicide rates, and less drug and alcohol overdoses. As someone stated in a Christianity Today article: “Empty pews are an American public health crisis. There are more mental problems because the House of God is closed.”

VOLUNTEERING

  • Concerns about Covid-19 exposure and public health safety measures limit people’s willingness and ability to perform volunteer work. A lot of churches saw their longtime, reliable volunteers back away from their roles because their age put them at risk. Even those who remain willing to serve can be unpredictable; the likelihood of illness or exposure at home, especially during pandemic surges, has meant more volunteers are calling out sick when leaders are strapped for help. 
  • Over three quarters of US pastors said they were concerned about developing leaders and volunteers, as well as people’s apathy and lack of commitment. Over two-thirds said training current leaders and volunteers was a concern. A lot of churches lost their long-term, reliable, go-to people and were left with no one. The tendency becomes to ask everyone and take anyone, which is not the best approach. The challenge is to recruit with the why of the ministry – not the need – in mind.
  • In the United Kingdom, a survey by the Evangelical Alliance last fall found 59 percent of church leaders saw volunteering decrease, and 31 percent of church members said they were volunteering less during the pandemic. Some churches that reopened had not resumed activities in youth ministry (25%) or children’s ministry (17%). Leaders suggested that former volunteers were attending church less and enjoyed having fewer commitments. 
  • On a positive note, after seeing a drop in volunteers in 2020 due to pandemic shutdowns, World Relief saw unprecedented interest in volunteering last summer, as Americans anticipated Afghan evacuees coming to the US after Kabul fell to the Taliban. Other ministries have also been able to recruit to meet urgent needs. Last month, Samaritan’s Purse sent 2,000 volunteers to Arkansas and Kentucky after the tornadoes.

Sources: Journal of Religion and Health, Christian Trendwatcher, Christianity Today, Barna Group, IFS, Pew, World Relief, EA-UK, Gallup

 

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