(RNS) — A study of 1,000 U.S. Protestant churchgoers found 91% said they planned on returning to in-person worship when it is safe to do so. The study from Lifeway Research, a nonprofit affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, suggests churchgoers are eager to return to pre-pandemic worship practices.
“Many of these pastors are wondering if those who haven’t returned ever will,” Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research, said in a press release. “Nine in 10 churchgoers plan to when it is safe to do so.”
Though many churches are already meeting in person, attendance has typically been smaller to accommodate for social distancing. In January, 51% of churchgoers said they didn’t attend any in-person services and 83% said they watched a livestream of a church service instead. With vaccines now becoming more readily available, attendance is likely to pick up soon, the study suggested.
A total of 8% of churchgoers said they have been diagnosed with COVID-19; 42% said someone in their church has been diagnosed with the disease, and 18% said a fellow church member died from it. The study also noted that only 5% of churchgoers have switched to another church in the same geographic area during the pandemic, and only 3% have switched churches because of a move.
The survey was conducted Feb. 5-18 using a national, pre-recruited panel. It had a margin of error of 3.2 percentage points.
Other surveys suggest some things are likely to change for good as a result of the pandemic.
Digital tithing may be one. A Wired magazine story reported COVID-19 greatly accelerated the trend, with one-third of churches that had not before used a digital tithing platform signing up for one. (About half of U.S. churches had already been offering such services pre-pandemic.)
And while some smaller congregations may discontinue online services once it is safe to gather in person, other churches may find value in a hybrid model, especially if they have drawn a new audience online and if those new viewers are also contributing online.
Religion scholars say one thing seems certain: Church attendance has been declining slowly for decades and the pandemic is unlikely to change that.