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Despite COVID-19 Measures Lifting, In-Person Church Attendance Remains Stagnant

Zooming religious services, once seen as a temporary fix, may now feel like a necessity for some congregants and churches.  

The pandemic has changed the way we worship.

Mask mandates are receding, COVID-19 cases are declining, and more houses of worship are going back to in-person services.

But attendance at those in-person services has not risen over the past six months, Pew Research found.

About one-third of Americans said they typically attend religious services once or twice a month. Among them, 43 percent reported their houses of worship are currently open and holding services the way they did before the pandemic — an increase of 14 percentage points in the last six months and up 31 points since March 2021.

Only 5 percent said their houses of worship are still closed to in-person worship, about the same since September 2021. Coronavirus-related restrictions, such as wearing masks, are being rolled back in houses of worship.

As of May 31, 41.2 percent of Americans have been fully vaccinated, and CDC guidelines changed in mid-May to allow fully vaccinated Americans to “resume activities that [they] did prior to the pandemic,” reports Religion Unplugged.

“There is good reason to believe that virtual attendance is much higher today than it was before the coronavirus outbreak began in early 2020,” a Pew report states.  (Pew Research Center)

In March, 67 percent of Americans who attend religious services reported they physically attended, while 57 percent said they attended services online or on TV during that time.

The number of American adults attending religious services in person rose from 13 percent in July 2020 to 26 percent in September 2021 and is now at 27 percent. Over the same period, the proportion of Americans who say they have streamed religious services online or watched them on TV in the past month has decreased from 36 percent in July 2020 to 28 percent in September 2021 and is now 30 percent.

About 36 percent have attended services both in person and online in the past month. The survey indicates that 21 percent may be substituting online attendance for in-person attendance, and 12 percent of regular attendees said they have attended neither online nor in person over the past month.

“While religious congregations as a whole may have experienced a large drop in physical attendance during the pandemic, there’s good reason to believe that virtual attendance is much higher today than it was before the coronavirus outbreak began in early 2020,” the Pew report states.

Members of the congregation participate in a mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception June 22, 2020, in Washington, DC. At that time, the government of District of Columbia had begun its phase two of reopening, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with houses of worship resuming at a maximum of 50 percent capacity, and no more than 100 people. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Still, as the pandemic enters its third year, more churches are having to weigh the costs and benefits of online versus in-person worship.

In a July 2020 survey, taken during the first year of Covid, 18 percent of all American adults said they watched religious services online or on TV for the first time. Black Protestants are more likely than evangelical and mainline Protestants to say they attended services virtually. And all of those groups are more likely than Catholics to say they attended online services.

Events signal change: What was once perceived as a temporary fix has become a necessity for many churches.

Produced in association with Religion Unplugged.

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