Even though Americans have been receiving COVID-19 vaccines for months before January, a new study revealed that less churches held in-person services at the beginning of the year than they did in September.

Lifeway Research conducted a new study over the past several months and discovered that only 76% of U.S. Protestant pastors said their churches met in-person in January, which was down from 87% reporting they did in September.

Pandemic taking its toll on fellowship

While about 3 out of 4 churches are still holding in-person services, most are nowhere near the attendance numbers they had before the coronavirus pandemic struck.

“Around 3 in 10 pastors (31%) say their attendance in January 2021 is less than half what it was in January 2020 – months before the coronavirus prompted national lockdowns,” Lifeway reported. “Slightly more (37%) note attendance between 50% and 70%, [and] another 3 in 10 say attendance is close to normal (70%– 100%), [while] few (2%) have grown in their in-person attendance compared to one year ago.”

Lifeway Research Executive Director Scott McConnell indicated that most churches constantly monitor whether or not they will open their doors.

“Churches continue to evaluate when to meet in person based on local conditions and cases within their congregation,” McConnell noted. “Even when a church determines it’s safe to meet, [its] individual members will return on their own timetable.”

It was found that more than three times as many mainline pastors (39%) closed their doors to in-person services in January than evangelical pastors (12%) did.

No avoiding it

With the winter surge of Wuhan virus infections, many more pastors saw their congregations touched by the pandemic in January than they did when they were surveyed last summer.

“Three times as many now say someone in their church has been diagnosed with COVID-19, and almost six times as many pastors report an attendee dying from it,” Lifeway researchers divulged. “Almost 9 in 10 Protestant pastors (88%) say a church attendee has been diagnosed with COVID-19 – up from 28% in July 2020 – [while] close to 3 in 10 (29%) say a member died from COVID-19, compared to 5% last summer.”

A number of trends regarding where the pandemic struck the hardest among churches was also revealed.

“[P]astors of churches with 200 or more in attendance are the most likely to say someone in their congregation died from COVID-19 (51%), while pastors of churches with fewer than 50 are the least likely (15%),” the research showed. “Younger pastors (18- to 44-years-old) are the most likely to have lost a church attendee to the coronavirus (41%), as well as pastors in the South (38%).”

When fatalities continued to rise during the winter, more pastors came face-to-face with the toll of the Chinese virus.

“The respect pastors in specific regions had last summer for the devastation of this pandemic has now spread throughout the nation,” McConnell. “For a growing number, the loss of life has reached a dear saint or regular attendee in their own congregation.”

Taking the bad with the good

Financial hardships experienced due to the pandemic were also rife.

“Similar numbers from July 2020 say an attendee lost their job (50%) and had income impacted by reduced work hours (72%) at any time during the coronavirus pandemic,” the Nashville-based Christian research group found.

However, some bright patches amidst the gloomy pandemic were revealed by church leaders.

“Almost all pastors (90%) say people in their church have helped each other with tangible needs during the pandemic, while almost 3 in 4 (73%) report attendees meeting tangible needs in the community connected to the pandemic,” Lifeway shared from the survey results. “Close to 9 in 10 pastors (88%) say new people who have not attended their church in the past have attended or connected online during the pandemic, [and] a quarter (25%) say an attendee has seen someone make a commitment to follow Christ after sharing the gospel.”

It was also discovered that most small fellowships or Sunday schools (62%) are still staying afloat during the pandemic – in one form or another.

“Pastors estimate more than a third of groups (36%) are meeting in person, while 25% are meeting online or by phone,” Lifeway informed. “Another third of church classes are not currently meeting, and 6% of classes no longer exist.”

However, pastors said in-person fellowship for students is markedly down during the pandemic, as only about a third (32%) indicated that all their events are still up and running at church.

“A quarter (25%) say only some activities are in-person, [and] another 22% say the only activities currently happening are online,” the results showed. “Slightly fewer (21%) say they aren’t holding any student activities in-person or online now, [and] among those [who] are holding some in-person gatherings, more than 3 in 4 (77%) say their attendance is at least half what it was prior to the pandemic, including 5% who say they’ve grown.”

Most who have foregone meeting in person altogether expect to return to church – at least by year’s end.

“For those that aren’t meeting at all or only online, more than a quarter (28%) expect to resume in-person student ministry activities by May,” Lifeway explained. “Others are aiming for this summer (18%), this fall (19%) or next year (4%), [while] around 3 in 10 (31%) say they’re not sure when they’ll start meeting in person again.”

COVID hurting kids

After reviewing the church numbers, it was assessed that due to the pandemic, “[k]ids are paying a price,” TheBlaze observed.

When it comes to children’s ministries, only a quarter (25%) maintain that all of their activities continue to be in-person, with slightly less (24%) saying they still hold some in-person activities and 21% indicated all events are being held online, while 30% have ceased all such meetings. It was also found that 71% of pastors still holding in-person children ministries have maintained at least half of those who attended before the pandemic, and only 2% reported a rise in attendance.

Similar to their anticipation for adult ministries in the near future, youth ministries also are predicted to dramatically increase as 2021 progresses.

“Among the kid ministries not meeting at all or holding only online activities, 25% expect to resume in-person events by the end of spring, 17% say this summer, 26% are looking toward this fall, and 1% aim for 2022,” the survey results revealed. “Three in 10 pastors are not sure when they’ll start back in-person kids’ ministry activities.”


Copyright American Family News. Reprinted with permission.

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