Church Attendance is Down. How Far Down Is It?

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The Baptist Standard has done a nice job piecing together data from LifeWay Research on church attendance trends in the wake of the pandemic. What did they find? Church attendance is down. That’s no big surprise. How far down is it?

A few key statistics:

A majority of African American Protestant pastors (60 percent) say their congregations did not meet in person last month.

Mainline pastors (31 percent) are more likely than evangelical pastors (7 percent) to say they did not physically gather in September. Denominationally, Methodists (22 percent) and Presbyterian/Reformed (23 percent) are more likely to say they did not meet in person than Lutherans (12 percent), pastors in the Restorationist movement (10 percent) or Baptists (9 percent).

Social distancing may be easier in churches, as most pastors say their congregation has less than 70 percent of pre-COVID crowds.

One in 10 churches (9 percent) say their attendance in September was less than 30 percent of what it was in February before the pandemic spread to the United States. Another 20 percent say attendance was between 30 percent and less than 50 percent of what it was.

A third of pastors (34 percent) say it has reached 50 percent to less than 70 percent of previous levels. For 1 in 5 (21 percent) attendance is between 70 percent to less than 90 percent.

The mainline/evangelical split isn’t a shocker. What’s sobering is the percentage declines in attendance, especially considering that most church buildings do have space to make accommodations according to social distancing guidelines and that sensible measures such as wearing masks or tailoring liturgy to limit congregational singing are both reasonable and quite easy to implement. Several churches in our area, including the congregation I am part of, have chosen to meet outside, even before the cooler temperatures of autumn had arrived. Some mornings it was sweltering, but we gathered anyway.

This survey doesn’t tell us everything, only a few tidbits about who is meeting, who is not, and a few implications. I wasn’t surprised, nor did I really care much, to be told that one of the biggest changes church leaders have made in the wake of the pandemic has been to forestall a capital campaign or a building improvement project. That means very little to me.

There are wider considerations. Not every state has had the same regulations in place; politics, I’m certain, are a factor, and there is something to be said for church leaders who have actively promoted public health measures. Some states have employed Draconian measures; technocrats have tossed aside liberty. Government can overreach, and in some places, it most certainly has.

Polity differences matter, too. Baptists people are congregational, and thus, their people are more likely to put more pressure on their pastors to meet. Methodists, on the other hand, have an episcopate structure. Parishioners in those contexts may care that there church isn’t meeting, but know their pastor serves under the appointment of a bishop and cabinet. Decisions to refrain from meeting could be more regional than they are local.

African American pastors and their churches may not be meeting due to disproportionate effects the pandemic has had on their parishioners.

There are discipleship factors as well, though they would be nearly impossible to sift. For some, the pandemic might have relieved social pressures that kept some active in church, while their normal preference would’ve been to invest their time in other ways. COVID-19, then, has been a wonderful excuse not to meet, an easy out.

Down here in Waco most church leaders I know are back to meeting in some way, shape, or form. People wear masks, remain physically distanced, and have asked volunteers to increase efforts in the areas of sanitation. That’s good. That’s wise.

But I also know that people are tired of COVID. They’re ready to get back to normal. I think it will be tough to strike the right balance, to remain vigilant, while also opening avenues for congregational togetherness, fellowship, and corporate worship.

I’ve heard some really silly biblical arguments as to why we should be gathering in spite of the risks, fatalistic accounts that negate human responsibility and involve strange and sinister conceptions of God’s sovereignty. I’m well aware that there are biblical commands to meet together routinely, and there are Old Testament commands that contain wisdom with regard to the observance of a weekly day of worship. But Sunday gatherings for worship are more the product of church tradition than they are an explicit biblical command, and the nature of our public gatherings can widely vary based on the leading of the Spirit and the needs of the community. Much more could be written on this topic, certainly.

On the other hand, some people think that it is wisest, and that there is little harm, in foregoing the worship gathering. I disagree. I think there is a level of risk, but not enough to forego public gatherings tailored to our present moment. My read on our region is that we are in a place where it is reasonable to meet together weekly, to do something. If churches aren’t meeting regularly, then pastors should be adjusting their approach to ministry, shepherding their people by reaching out, making phone calls, maybe even stopping by on doorsteps and having front yard conversations from several feet away. Zoom has limits. Physical presence matters.

The months ahead could look very different, not only because of a change in weather, but also due to a change in political climate. But the losses that have taken place this year will require hard and diligent work to recoup. The harvest is plentiful. The workers are few. Pray that God would raise up workers to labor in his field.

Discern, then Respond

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