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Survey: Churchgoers say they plan to return to in-person services

Many churches are already meeting in person, but attendance has typically been smaller to accommodate for social distancing. That will likely change, a Lifeway Research poll suggests.

The Rev. Kip Rush delivers his sermon in a sanctuary filled with mostly empty pews March 15, 2020, during a streamed service at Brenthaven Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Brentwood, Tennessee. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

(RNS) — A study of 1,000 U.S. Protestant churchgoers found 91% said they planned on returning to in-person worship when it is safe to do so.

The study from Lifeway Research, a nonprofit affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, suggests churchgoers are eager to return to pre-pandemic worship practices.

“Many of these pastors are wondering if those who haven’t returned ever will,” Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research, said in a press release. “Nine in 10 churchgoers plan to when it is safe to do so.”


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Though many churches are already meeting in person, attendance has typically been smaller to accommodate for social distancing. In January, 51% of churchgoers said they didn’t attend any in-person services and 83% said they watched a livestream of a church service instead. With vaccines now becoming more readily available, attendance is likely to pick up soon, the study suggested.

“91% of churchgoers plan to attend church in person as much or more post-COVID-19” Graphic courtesy of Lifeway Research

“91% of churchgoers plan to attend church in person as much or more post-COVID-19” Graphic courtesy of Lifeway Research

The study also noted that only 5% of churchgoers have switched to another church in the same geographic area during the pandemic, and only 3% have switched churches because of a move.

A total of 8% of churchgoers said they have been diagnosed with COVID-19; 42% said someone in their church has been diagnosed with the disease, and 18% said a fellow church member died from it.

The survey was conducted Feb. 5-18 using a national, pre-recruited panel. It had a margin of error of 3.2 percentage points.

Other surveys suggest some things are likely to change for good as a result of the pandemic.

Digital tithing may be one. A Wired magazine story reported COVID-19 greatly accelerated the trend, with one-third of churches that had not before used a digital tithing platform signing up for one. (About half of U.S. churches had already been offering such services pre-pandemic.)

And while some smaller congregations may discontinue online services once it is safe to gather in person, other churches may find value in a hybrid model, especially if they have drawn a new audience online and if those new viewers are also contributing online.

Religion scholars say one thing seems certain: Church attendance has been declining slowly for decades and the pandemic is unlikely to change that.


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