Two Years Into the COVID-19 Pandemic, Church Attendance Is Still Down

Many churches are back to their regular in-person programming after the pandemic. But where is the congregation?

Two years ago, I reported that church attendance was down during the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time, churches across the country had scrambled to adapt by livestreaming weekend services or meeting socially-distanced and outdoors. Despite these efforts, many who had formerly been connected to churches drifted away:

A study conducted during April and early May, during the height of the U.S. social distancing measures, found that 1 in 3 people who identified as “practicing Christians” was not attending church — meaning tuning in to at least one online service — during the quarantine.

Those early numbers showed that millennials were dropping out at a higher rate than other generations. I found it interesting that one of the generations most familiar with digital routines and technology had become the most disconnected in the era of online church. Those who had “dropped out” reported being more anxious about their lives and more insecure about the future compared to their church-attending counterparts.

Last spring, our church was finally able to return to a semblance of our pre-2020 scheduling. Sunday morning service, youth group and on-campus Bible studies resumed, and these groups were able to meet indoors. As restrictions eased, many people who had been viewing services online returned to campus. These numbers grew steadily through the summer and into the early fall. Our pastors invited those still attending online to come back in person, hopeful that attendance might return to pre-pandemic levels.

Never coming back

Two years after the first COVID restrictions took effect, many churches have shared the hope that attendance would rebound to 2019 levels. However, a recent Christianity Today article reveals that the number of those returning to in-person church has plateaued.

Over the past six months, nearly all houses of worship have reopened for services and, week by week, more have dropped mask requirements, social distancing, and other COVID-19 precautions. But the latest figures from Pew Research Center show that once-regular churchgoers aren’t much more likely to show up than they were back in September.

This means that a significant number (over 10 percent) of people who were regular church attenders pre-pandemic have failed to come back to church. In spring of 2020, many local churches felt encouraged by the opportunity to gain a wider reach through online services, which could extend to those who couldn’t make it to a church building for a variety of reasons. But despite growth in overall reach, the news is not all good.

The number of Americans overall who have attended or tuned into a church service exceeds those who say they’re regular churchgoers. While overall reach has expanded, there’s a segment of Christians who used to belong to a church community who aren’t engaging at all anymore: 12 percent of formerly regular churchgoers say they’re not attending in person or watching online.

Getting our groove back

I have long had a heart for the “big C” Church — the organization Jesus established to be His hands and feet on earth and continue His work of building God’s kingdom. The New Testament has a lot to say about the Church — what it looks like and how it should function. Christ is the head, and the Church is His bride. Like a married couple, the two are to function in unity. And unity requires togetherness. Paul describes the Church as a body where every member is essential. You don’t send your toe across town when you have a marathon coming up.

Several times I’ve heard someone suggest that attending church or being part of a church community is unnecessary to the Christian life. I strongly disagree. Not only does this notion go against much of the New Testament, it’s also impractical. Hebrews 10:24-25 makes a strong case for the importance of “gathering” when it says: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”

Meeting together is an essential aspect of living out God’s vision for the Church. The author of Hebrews addressed “some” who had fallen into the habit of not meeting together. That sounds eerily familiar. The church is a place where Christians come together to serve, encourage one another, identify as part of the family of God, receive instruction in the Word and so much more. Cut off from that community, it is easy to become discouraged and deceived by stronger influences. I’ve seen it happen many times.

Maybe you’re in that group who hasn’t yet returned to church. If so, it’s time to plug back into a local church body. Being part of a faithful church is vital to walking in faith and living out the gospel of Jesus Christ. If you’ve already gone back, think of a friend who may need an invitation this Sunday. Sometimes all it takes to start a new habit is having someone to do it with. We need each other. We need the church. It’s time to go back.

Copyright 2022 Suzanne Hadley Gosselin. All Rights Reserved.

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About the Author

Suzanne Gosselin
Suzanne Hadley Gosselin

Suzanne Hadley Gosselin is a freelance writer and editor. She graduated from Multnomah University with a degree in journalism and biblical theology. She lives in California with her husband, Kevin, who is a family pastor, and her four young children: Josiah, Sadie, Amelia and Jackson. When she’s not hanging out with her kids, Suzanne loves a good cup of coffee, conversation with friends, musical theater and a trip to the beautiful California coast.

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