New research detailing the impact of COVID-19 on churches yielded mixed findings, with both positives and negatives emerging in the wake of the pandemic.
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The report, titled, “Back to Normal? The Mixed Messages of Congregational Recovery Coming Out of the Pandemic,” was conducted by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford International University for Religion and Peace, and is part of a larger project assessing the pandemic’s impact.
On the positive front, attendance is on the rise among Christian denominations, though it is still generally “below pre-pandemic levels,” according to the report. Before COVID-19, worship attendance had a median of 65 people, now down to 60.
But when one takes into account people watching virtually, total worship attendance jumps to a median of 75, which is above the 65 observed before the pandemic.
Another positive finding surrounds income and money coming into churches. The average median income for a church in 2020 was $120,000, but that number has grown to $170,000 — a 42% increase — over the past three years.
“Even adjusting for inflation,” the report noted, “This still represents a remarkable increase of over 25% since 2020.”
This positive finding is reportedly in line with other national giving trends.
Perhaps one of the most surprising positive elements in the study surrounds tensions and debate within churches. While America is a powder keg of emotions, particularly around politics and contentious social issues, churches are experiencing a decrease in “serious conflict.”
According to the report, “All three categories of serious conflict decreased between 5 and 25 percent,” with increases in churches experiencing no conflict or less serious levels of conflict.
The report speculates one possible reason for this is churches became more homogeneous before or early on in the pandemic.
Despite these positive findings, the data also point to another reality: challenges still abound. One key area of concern is attendance and membership. Already an issue before the pandemic, it’s unclear what the full impact of COVID-19 will be in this arena.
“One-third of the 4,809 churches indicate they have grown in attendance since 2020, while just over 50% report a slight or severe decline from where they were pre-pandemic,” the report reads. “This latest survey shows a slight increase of 3% for churches in the ‘much decline’ category (those showing a decline of more than 25% from their pre-pandemic attendance) with corresponding declines in a few of the other categories.”
And while membership numbers are an area to continue monitoring, another pre-existing issue was the age of congregants and pastors. In 2020, the average age of a senior church leader was 57 years old, with that number ticking up to 59 in 2023.
Plus, the average percentage of church members over the age of 65 increased from 33% in 2020 to 36% in 2023. These aren’t massive jumps, but they’re notable statistics considering concerns over the decrease in young people entering the church.
The report itself notes Christian churches and pastoral leadership are older “as a result of having
insufficient representation from younger generations.”
Perhaps the most notable change to be observed among American churches, though, centers on the use of technology. With COVID-19 demanding many stay home and social distance, churches were forced to quickly innovate and make worship services available virtually.
Just 20% of churches said they streamed worship in 2019 but, in 2023, that statistic has jumped significantly. Today, 73% of churches offer both online and in-person worship.
In the end, “Back to Normal? The Mixed Messages of Congregational Recovery Coming Out of the Pandemic” shows a “mixed message” filled with positives and negatives as churches continue to make their way out of the complex issues COVID-19 created.
“Churches may not ‘be back’ yet to a state of normalcy and settledness, but they are further along this path than they have been in the last two years,” the report concluded.
The report, part of the Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations: Innovation Amidst and Beyond COVID-19 project, includes a total of 58 Christian denominational groups and 4,809 responses. The current data wave was collected from January to May of 2023.
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