Nearly three years since COVID-19 forced churches to temporarily suspend meeting together, in-person worship attendance still remains markedly less than pre-pandemic trends, according to a 2022 survey.
As part of the 2022 American Religious Benchmark Survey, researchers from the American Enterprise Institute at the University of Chicago asked 9,425 Americans about their religious identity and worship attendance. Those surveyed had answered the same questions between 2018 and early 2020.
“We are looking at the attendance patterns and religious identity of the exact same people at two different time periods,” said Dan Cox, one of the authors of the new study and a senior fellow in polling and public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute.
The survey’s findings revealed that the decline in attendance mostly represented groups that had already started to show a decline before the pandemic—particularly among younger adults, who were already lagging before the pandemic and showed the most significant drop-off since.
Liberal Americans (46 percent), those who have never married (44%) and those under 30 (43%) were most likely to skip worship service altogether and experienced the largest declines in attendance rates. By contrast, conservatives (20%), those over 65 (23%) or those who are married (28%) were less likely to say they never attended services and saw less drop-off.
One in four Americans surveyed (24%) said last year that they attended church regularly—which includes those who attended nearly every week or more often. Another 8% attended at least once a month—for a total of 32% who attended regularly or occasionally. That was down slightly from a total of 36% in 2020.
Last year, just over a third (36%) said they attended church at least once a year. Another third (33%) said they never attended—up from 25% in 2020.
Cox cited generational shifts in attitudes about religion and the broader polarization in society as likely contributors to the continued decline in worship attendance.
The decline in attendance overall comes at a time when many congregations have been dwindling for years. The median congregation size in the United States dropped from 137 people in 2000 to 65 as of 2020, according to the Faith Communities Today study.
Most congregations have seen attendance decline by about a quarter during the pandemic, said Scott Thumma, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford International University. That decline has hit smaller churches particularly hard. Most churches, he said, have fewer than 100 people. If 25 people are missing from those churches, that has a huge impact.
Increasingly, younger Americans are less likely to identify as religious or attend services. For example, the 2021 General Social Survey found that 41.5% of Americans between 18 and 29 said they never attend church services, with 20.6% saying they attend more than once a month.
Meanwhile, new political debates were born during the pandemic, with vaccines and masks becoming points of contention and markers of political identity rather than public health interventions.
Conservative churches were likely to reopen sooner than more liberal congregations—consequently making it easier for people to attend those churches in person.
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