For most U.S. congregations, in-person worship has returned to mid-March levels despite a nationwide rise in coronavirus cases, a new report says.
A study from LifeWay Research, a publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, found 71% of churches led by mainline Protestant or evangelical ministers met for in-person worship as recently as July 19.
On March 15, 95% of U.S. churches were meeting in-person as the coronavirus seeped its way into the Pacific Northwest and New York City.
It’s a striking rise since the middle of April, when only 4% of churches were meeting for in-person services.
Still, the numbers, published Friday, come as coronavirus surges across the country: On Monday, the pastor of a north Alabama Baptist church said more than 40 congregants, including himself, tested positive for COVID-19 after holding in-person services over several days last week.
LifeWay’s study, which counts pastors not congregants, inflates the influence of smaller churches and should be read as a snapshot, said John Dyer, a dean at Dallas Theological Seminary.
“After opening, many churches are closing again,” Mr. Dyer said Monday. “Many of the largest churches of 1,000+ are not meeting.”
Nevertheless, church attendance as a whole has rallied back this summer, as governors lifted bans on gatherings and other measures throughout May and June. The majority of churches leading the way appear to be in the South, Midwest and West, says LifeWay.
“Resuming in-person worship services has not been reverting to worship as usual,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research. “Churches are making efforts to make the environment safe, but these efforts are often second-guessed by those who either want more precautions or less restrictions.”
LifeWay’s results, culled from over 440 interviews with pastors, also underscore the tether between charitable offerings and in-person attendance. The largest drops in giving were seen by pastors in the Northeast, where in-person attendance is lowest.
“Our attendance has dipped a little over time from what it normally would be, but summer attendance is always lower anyway,” the Rev. Guy J.D. Collins at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Hanover, New Hampshire, said in an email Monday. “There is definitely Zoom fatigue, and Zoom has been much harder on young children.”
Still, only 34% of churches surveyed say offerings in 2020 are below 2019 numbers. However, for a small number of churches (13%) the drop in giving has been over 50%.
While only 35% of the churches surveyed are requiring mask use, 99% of churches overall took at least one or more precaution, including adding services to spread parishioners out or conducting temperature checks.
The study shows the pandemic also has impacted congregation’s members, with roughly half (48%) of pastors reporting a member lost a job. Yet 83% of pastors also reported a new member joining the church or attending service — either virtual or in-person — during the pandemic.
More pastors of mainline congregations, such as Lutherans or Methodists, show hesitancy (57%) in rejoining for in-person worship than pastors who lead evangelical churches (82%).
An article published Monday in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion attributes the divide to a high opinion of “hyperpartisan” politics arising from “Christian nationalism” — the belief that Christian values are essential to American identity.
Christian nationalism “is positively associated with Americans’ frequency of engaging in incautious behaviors,” such as not washing hands, refusing to wear a mask or attending public gatherings, say sociologists Samuel L. Perry and Andrew L. Whitehead and psychologist Joshua B. Grubbs.