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Essay: COVID-19 sent houses of worship online. Will congregations come back in person?

How Have You Participated in Worship in the Previous Month

RYAN BURGE, pastor, author and assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University, says – in an article first published on Religion News Service – that religious leaders can find concern and comfort in a survey about attendance at worship early in the pandemic…

United States

When the COVID-19 pandemic led governors across the United States to close places where people congregated, religious organisations were left scrambling. While some larger houses of worship had already been broadcasting their weekend services online, many had to suddenly and urgently master the logistics of streaming worship online.

The vast majority adapted quickly. In 2020, Lifeway, the Southern Baptist Convention’s research arm, indicated that just a few months into the pandemic, 97 per cent of churches were offering some form of online worship, salvaging the best form of connection to their congregants they had.

Today, as a result, many religious leaders are facing a difficult transition: How do they nudge people off of streaming and back into the pews for weekend worship? And will they ever pull the plug on streaming services altogether?

How Have You Participated in Worship in the Previous Month

Data from the Pew Research Center just uploaded to the Association of Religion Data Archives provides interesting insights into how religious Americans expected online services to reshape their religious lives. The American Trends Panel Wave 70 was conducted in July of 2020 — still early days of the pandemic, so it represents only worshippers’ intentions. But the survey provides some of the most wide-ranging and revealing numbers we have seen on attendance before and after the pandemic.

To begin with, it’s crucial to note that 43 per cent of respondents, when asked about their possible religious attendance after the pandemic was over, indicated, “I did not attend religious services in person before the outbreak and will not attend when the outbreak is over.”

Thus, two in five Americans said COVID-19 had no effect on their attendance at a religious institution at all. The rest of the analysis included only those who said they would attend services online or in person after the pandemic was over.

In July, 2020, 41 per cent of those surveyed responded that they were attending religious services exclusively online; another 14 per cent said they were participating in worship both online and in person. Seven per cent said that they were exclusively attending in person.

When the coronavirus outbreak is over, how often do you think you will attend religious services in person

The real surprise of the Pew numbers is the 39 per cent who planned to attend religious services in person or online after the lockdowns ended who said that they were not attending either option in July, 2020. They had simply withdrawn from worshipping altogether.

One concern that religious leaders have had is that some of their congregation would find online streaming more convenient and would not return to worship in person when the lockdowns were lifted. The data provides some comfort on that question.

Among those who were exclusively streaming services in July, 2020, only 10 per cent said they planned to attend services less often after restrictions were lifted. That’s not materially different from those who said they were not attending services at all during lockdowns. In other words, their behavior during the lockdowns didn’t seem to influence how frequently they intended to come to church, synagogue, mosque or temple after the pandemic.

When the coronavirus outbreak is over, fo you think you will watch religious services online or on TV

But what about using streaming to attend religious services after the lockdowns have ended? Among those who reported that they were both attending services in person and watching them online in July, 2020, 34 per cent said they would stream services less often once the lockdown had ended. Among those who were streaming exclusively in July, 2020, 27 per cent said that they would be watching online less often when the COVID-19 restrictions had been lifted.

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It seems clear from these figures that most people saw the online experience as a stop-gap measure, not a paradigm shift in how they connect with a religious community.

Nor does the quality of the online experience seem to have an effect on their return to the pews. Pew asked respondents how satisfied they were with watching a religious service through the internet. Satisfaction was high: 54 per cent said “very satisfied”, 37 per cent said “somewhat satisfied” and just eight per cent said they were not at all or not too satisfied with their online experience.

Planned Attendance After COVID, Based On Satisfaction With Online Services

Across this range, about 90 per cent of people said that they planned to attend in person about as often or more often when they were allowed to return to corporate worship.

Not surprisingly, having an unsatisfactory experience online did convince some people to expect they would be less likely to stream services after lockdowns were over. Of those who reported low satisfaction, 41 per cent said that they would be watching services less often when they could return in person. Even among those who had a good experience watching online services, a quarter said that they would use the online option less often when COVID-19 was over.

When looked at broadly, there is cause for concern and comfort in this data. It should be troubling for religious leaders that about 40 per cent of people who were worshipping in person before COVID-19 were not attending worship services in July, 2020 (either in person or through the internet). They can take comfort, however, that no matter how an individual was connected to their local congregation (either online, in person or not at all), there is little difference in their desire to return to worship.

It’s important to remember that these questions were asked about future behavior. More recent surveys have indicated that religious attendance has dropped substantially from 2018 and 2022. Next, we have to better understand any disconnect between how people thought they were going to behave and how they actually participated in religious communities after the lockdowns ended.

ryan burge

Ryan Burge is an assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University, a pastor in the American Baptist Church and author of The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going. He can be reached on Twitter at @ryanburge. 


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