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What the pandemic has done to churches

Around 25% of pre-pandemic Protestant churchgoers have yet to return to in-person worship, according to LifeWay Research

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The Rev. Greg Foster delivers a sermon at Waldoboro United Methodist Church, Sunday, June 20, 2021, in Waldoboro, Maine.

The Rev. Greg Foster delivers a sermon at Waldoboro United Methodist Church, Sunday, June 20, 2021, in Waldoboro, Maine. Millions of people stayed home from places of worship during the COVID-19 pandemic. The deepening slide in attendance at the Waldoboro church forced its closure.

Robert F. Bukaty, Associated Press

This article was first published in the State of Faith newsletter. Sign up to receive the newsletter in your inbox each Monday night.

Two years after COVID-19 reached the United States, many churches are taking tentative steps toward restoring their pre-pandemic routines.

One of my friends told me her church sang hymns last weekend for the first time in months. The church I worshipped with on Sunday is once again hosting a coffee hour.

More than 9 in 10 Protestant houses of worship in the U.S. (97%) are now meeting in person, according to the latest research from LifeWay Research. Nearly as many (86%) said they’ve relaunched in-person ministry activities for kids.

“The typical church has made great progress this last year in resuming Bible studies for all ages,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research, in a press release.

However, the typical church is far from problem free. A variety of recent research has shown that houses of worship continue to struggle with pandemic-related budget and membership problems, including emptier pews.

“There has been a decline in congregational attendance, but it currently is not as severe as might be expected nor shared equally by all churches,” according to a November 2021 report from a research project called “Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations.”

The median congregation has seen a 12% decline in attendance over the past two years, that report said. However, losses have been concentrated in smaller churches that offered no online worship options, researchers found.

When you consider only Protestant churches, the latest data shows that about “1 in 4 pre-pandemic churchgoers are still missing from in-person worship services,” LifeWay Research reported. That’s one reason why many pastors remain nervous about what the future will hold.

“We’re surviving. ... But we have felt the hurt,” said the Rev. Kevin Riggs, pastor of Franklin Community Church in Tennessee, to The Associated Press earlier this year.

Fresh off the press

Term of the week: Temporary protected status

Temporary protected status is an immigration-related designation granted to people in the U.S. who are from a country that’s been deemed too dangerous to return to. Factors that may lead to a TPS designation include armed conflict or an environmental disaster, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Last week, as Russia’s attack on Ukraine escalated, several organizations called on the Biden administration to grant temporary protected status to citizens of Ukraine who are currently in the U.S. On Thursday, federal officials heeded the call and announced that Ukrainians will not face deportation for at least the next 18 months. My colleague, Mya Jaradat, wrote about this news and other ways American groups are trying to help Ukrainian refugees.

What I’m reading ...

Jonathan Tjarks lost his father at a young age. Now, after a scary cancer diagnosis, he’s struggling with the idea that his own son may face the same fate. In a beautiful essay for The Ringer, Tjarks explores his diagnosis, his faith and what he wants for his son.

The Supreme Court has turned down an opportunity to revisit a controversial concept called the “ministerial exception” and explore how to apply it to the Christian college context. The justices voted to allow an employment discrimination case against Gordon College, a Christian school in Massachusetts, to move forward at the state level without Supreme Court interference, according to Christianity Today.

Odds and ends

The Christian season of Lent began last week with Ash Wednesday and will continue until Easter weekend. For a refresher on what Lent is all about, check out some of my past reporting on the topic: