Church participation has been declining for decades. Will the pandemic make it worse?
Pandemic-related defections could harm houses of worship already struggling with empty pews.
SALT LAKE CITY — COVID-19 forced congregations across the country to spend time apart.
Now, as churches reopen, faith leaders worry at least a few former worshippers want to permanently break up.
“Is this going to be a pivot point where people who were not heavily engaged choose to disengage? The answer to that is probably yes for a significant number of people,” said Ed Stetzer, an evangelism expert who serves as executive director of Wheaton College’s Billy Graham Center.
If this prediction comes true, houses of worship will suffer. Many denominations already face budget shortages and program cancellations due to emptying pews.
“The sense of obligation to be (in church) every week is definitely weaker today than it was even one generation ago,” said Nancy Ammerman, a professor of the sociology of religion at Boston University.
Beyond shrinking congregations, pandemic-linked defections could fuel a broader decline in religious behavior. People who stop attending church rarely develop or maintain spiritual practices at home, Ammerman said.
“If there’s no ... community to give you a feeling of obligation and of belonging, it’s very tempting to simply not do anything,” she said.
Churches will need to act fast to stop potential departures, Stetzer said. But figuring out the right solution is a complicated task.
“I think it was much easier to close your church than it’s going to be to reopen it,” he said.
Religious leaders’ biggest challenge, at least in the short run, will be deciding when to speak up. Amid an ongoing pandemic, pastors risk seeming insensitive if they comment on low attendance too soon, Stetzer said.
“There’s a high number of people planning to avoid all crowds for the foreseeable future,” he said.
Recent research found that around half of U.S. adults who attended church before COVID-19 hit are unlikely to return to church right now even if public health officials deemed it safe.
More Utahns would be “very” or “somewhat” comfortable dining in restaurants (62%) or going to the mall (67%) at this point than attending in-person church services (52%), according to a new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll.
“Singing (at church) just seems like the perfect way to spread disease,” said Jaxon Peterson, a 31-year-old father of two, to the Deseret News this week.
For the most part, religious leaders sympathize with people’s concerns.
“I’ve told people that if they have any reason to think twice, maybe they should stay home,” said the Rev. Leroy Davis, pastor of Hopeful Baptist Church in Montpelier, Virginia, which reopened last month.
Many churches will continue offering virtual services for the next several months for those who fear infection, Stetzer said.
“There will be a bifurcated ministry, an online community at the same time as a feet and faces community, probably for at least a year,” he said.
However, at some point, likely after the release of a coronavirus vaccine, the virus will stop being a legitimate concern and become a convenient excuse to skip church, he added.
In general, people on the fence about attending a service don’t need much encouragement to move from “maybe” to “no thanks.”
“If you’re already not sure about going to church and you just need one reason not to, then ‘I don’t go into crowds’ can be it,” Stetzer said.
Addressing low attendance
Even after the pandemic ends, some pastors will likely struggle to confront former worshippers who don’t return.
Many denominations stopped emphasizing regular church attendance in recent decades, so it would be difficult for them to change their tune now, Ammerman said.
“A few generations ago, people felt like, if you were a good Christian or good Jew, you needed to be present every week,” she said. In the 1950s and 1960s, expectations began shifting due to a combination of religious leaders focusing on other values and more worshippers wanting to guide their own spiritual development.
The better tactic for religious leaders worried about their shrinking flocks might be to highlight how difficult it is to stay engaged with faith on your own, religion scholars said. Once people drop out of a regular congregation, they rarely keep up with their original spiritual plans.
“People who don’t have some kind of spiritual community are unlikely to maintain any kind of active spiritual practice,” Ammerman said.
Religious leaders worried about pandemic-related defections can also try to ensure there’s a low barrier to entry at their church, Stetzer said. Someone who has gotten out of the habit of attending in-person worship services each weekend might still be willing to watch a livestream from the comfort of their home.
“Online is probably going to be the new front door of the church. Before, the front door was literally the front door,” he said.
The coronavirus created many challenges for houses of worship, but pushing them to move parts of their regular programming online may turn out to be a very good thing, he added.
Some pastors have reported hearing from people in different states and even different countries who tuned into their church’s livestream and enjoyed what they saw, as The Seattle Times reported this week.
“I don’t think we’ll go back to a time when churches just didn’t care about online resources,” Stetzer said.