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More prayer, fewer donations: How the coronavirus is changing people’s religious habits

Here’s what the latest research on the coronavirus and religion uncovered

Parishioner Maria Torres, of Des Moines, Iowa, recites the rosary in an empty St. Anthony’s Catholic Church, Friday, March 27, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa. Daily masses continue to be available online in response to the new coronavirus outbreak but the church is open daily for private prayers.
Charlie Neibergall, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — The threat of COVID-19 has disrupted almost every aspect of daily life, changing how Americans work, exercise, celebrate birthdays and shop. Several new surveys show it’s even affecting how people practice their faith.

Some Americans who rarely pray are reaching out to God for help. Many regular churchgoers are reducing their typical weekly donation. Most people of faith are now worshipping online.

These recent behavior changes likely won’t stick around long after life goes back to normal, but studying them still offers an interesting glimpse at how fear, economic pressure and social isolation can affect religious practice, researchers said.

“We’re really interested in seeing if this crisis causes an escalation in religious interest” over time, said Daniel Cox, who is the co-author of a new American Enterprise Institute survey.

How a pandemic affects prayer

One of the clearest takeaways from new research on how the current pandemic is affecting religious behaviors is that public health emergencies change who is praying and what they’re praying about.

Researchers found that more than half of Americans have called on God to end the spread of COVID-19, including some people who rarely ask for divine help.

“Large majorities of Americans who pray daily (86%) and of U.S. Christians (73%) have taken to prayer during the outbreak,” and so have 15% of adults who say they seldom or never pray and nearly one-quarter of folks who say they don’t belong to any religion, according to Pew Research Center.

In addition to affecting how people pray, the coronavirus pandemic is influencing people’s relationship to their faith, the American Enterprise Institute survey reported.

More than one-third of Americans who believe in God (37%) say they’ve grown closer to God over the past few weeks.

Some people of faith were more likely than others to report this shift. For example, around half of white evangelical Christians (54%) and black Protestants (53%) said they feel closer to God, compared with only 37% of Catholics and 23% of white mainline Protestants.

Embracing religious practices is one way that people are coping with “the anxiety and uncertainty the coronavirus outbreak has provoked,” researchers said.

Just as the Pew survey showed that there’s been an increase in prayer among religiously unaffiliated adults, the American Enterprise Institute found that Americans don’t need to be active in a faith group to feel closer to God at this time.

Fourteen percent of religious “nones” who believe in God say the current crisis has brought them closer to God, the survey reported.

No surges observed

Despite the slight increase in religious activity among people who rarely pray or don’t affiliate with a faith group, researchers said surveys haven’t yet shown a notable increase in belief in God or interest in organized religion.

“We looked at measures of religious belief and didn’t really see any difference” between new data and responses collected last fall, said Cox, who is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Pope Francis delivers his blessing from the window of his private library overlooking St. Peter’s Square, at the Vatican, on Sunday, March 22, 2020. His weekly Sunday blessing is being held in his private library in the Apostolic Palace due to virus concerns.
Andrew Medichini, Associated Press

There also hasn’t been a surge in church attendance, even though restrictions on large group gatherings have led most houses of worship to make their services available online.

Around 3 in 10 U.S. adults (28%) took part in an online worship service in the past week, the American Enterprise Institute reported. That’s about how many people visit a house of worship each week under more normal circumstances (34%), according to Gallup.

Scott McConnell, who is the executive director of LifeWay Research, isn’t surprised that few Americans are taking advantage of livestreamed worship services. It can be confusing for even committed church members to figure out how to get Facebook Live or Zoom to work.

“People are wondering where to find (the video) and how to log in,” he said.

Thirty percent of church members say their house of worship isn’t even offering services right now, Cox said.

Challenges and opportunities

Although the lack of an increase in religious engagement likely saddens faith leaders, the latest research shows they have bigger issues to deal with right now.

Mostly notably, churches are reporting that charitable giving is declining fast. Few people expect religious life to return to normal anytime soon.

“Three-quarters of Protestant pastors say there’s somebody in their church working fewer hours (because of the coronavirus) and 42% said somebody’s lost their job,” McConnell noted, citing data from LifeWay Research’s latest report.

Overall, half of Protestant pastors say donations to their church are down compared to this time last year. And among those who say giving is down, “60% say it has decreased by 25% or more, including 30% who say it has dropped by at least 50%,” LifeWay Research reported.

“Pastors, like most of us, are pretty stressed out and trying to grapple with all of these changes,” McConnell said.

They might be able to derive some comfort from the fact that their work is especially meaningful right now. Many Americans are craving the kind of human connections that congregations can provide, Cox said.

“There’s a hunger for connection,” he said, noting that around half of Americans have reached out to friends or relatives they haven’t talked to in a while.

Even if houses of worship gain no new members over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, they can still build up good will by working to reduce feelings of isolation among people in need, said Jamie Aten, executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College, to the Deseret News last month.

“The way churches navigate these sorts of situations in their communities can forever change the way they relate to others and how others relate to them,” he said.