More Americans Stay Away from Church as Pandemic Nears Year Three

By Bob Smietana
A church service during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Diana Polekhina/Unsplash/Creative Commons)

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly every congregation in the United States shut down, at least for a while.

For some Americans, that was the push they needed to never come back to church.

A new report, which looked at in-person worship attendance patterns before the beginning of the pandemic and in 2022, found that a third of those surveyed never attend worship services. That’s up from 25% before the start of the pandemic.

The pandemic has likely led people who already had loose ties to congregations to leave, said Dan Cox, one of the authors of the new study and a senior fellow in polling and public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute.

These were the folks that were more on the fringes to begin with,” said Cox. “They didn’t need much of a push or a nudge, to just be done completely.”

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pandemic
“Fewer Americans Attend Religious Services Following Pandemic” (Graphic courtesy of American Enterprise Institute)

As part of the 2022 American Religious Benchmark Survey, researchers from the American Enterprise Institute and NORC at the University of Chicago asked 9,425 Americans about their religious identity and worship attendance. Those surveyed had answered the same questions between 2018 and early 2020.

Researchers then compared answers from between 2018 and 2020 to answers from 2022 to understand how attendance patterns changed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are looking at the attendance patterns and religious identity of the exact same people at two different time periods,” said Cox.

The new study focused on attendance at in-person services versus online services. While some people — including the immunocompromised and their families — may still be attending digital services, measuring online engagement is “messier,” said Cox, and very different from in-person involvement. For example, he said, tuning in to a service for a few minutes is much different than going to a service in person. 

The report also noted the decline in attendance most affected groups that had already started to show a decline before the pandemic — particularly among younger adults, who were already lagging before the pandemic and showed the steepest drop-off since.

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“Liberals, Young Americans Saw Greates Declines in Worship Attendance” (Graphic courtesy of American Enterprise Institute)

Liberal Americans (46%), those who have never married (44%) and those under 30 (43%) are most likely to skip worship service altogether and saw the largest declines in attendance rates. By contrast, conservatives (20%), those over 65 (23%) or those who are married (28%) are less likely to say they never attend services and saw less drop-off.

One in 4 Americans (24% ) said in 2022 that they attend regularly — which includes those who attend nearly every week or more often. Another 8% attend at least once a month — for a total of 32% who attend regularly or occasionally. That was down slightly from a total of 36% in 2020.

In 2022, just over a third (36%) said they attend at least once a year. Another third (33%) said they never attend — up from 25% in 2020.

Cox said generational shifts and the broader polarization in society likely played a role in the attendance decline.

Younger Americans are less likely in general to identify as religious or attend services — the 2021 General Social Survey found that 41.5% of Americans between 18 and 29 said they never attend services, with 20.6 percent saying they attend more than once a month.

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“Young Adults Experience Largest Change in Religious Attendance” (Graphic courtesy of American Enterprise Institute)

New political battlefronts also opened up during the pandemic, with vaccines and masks becoming points of contention and markers of political identity rather than public health interventions.

Conservative churches were likely to reopen sooner than more liberal congregations—making it easier for people to attend those churches in person.

The change in attendance patterns did not affect every group equally.

More than half of Latter-day Saints (72%) and white evangelicals (53%) said they attended service regularly in 2022, about the same rate as before the pandemic. Other groups saw little drop-off in regular attenders as well, including Black Protestants (36%), white Catholics (30%), Hispanic Catholics (23%), white mainliners (17%) and Jews (10%), all reporting similar regular attendance rates in 2022 as before the pandemic.

The survey did show, however, that in most faith groups, the infrequent attenders were the largest group. That includes about half of white Catholics (46%), Hispanic Catholics (47%), white mainliners (51%) and Jews (54%). 

Black Protestant regular attenders (36%) and infrequent attenders (35%) were about the same size.

pandemic AEI
“Latter-day Saints (Mormons) Report Little Change in Patterns of Religious Attendance” (Graphic courtesy of American Enterprise Institute)

Cox found some hopeful news in the report, in that people have not given up their religious identity for the most part, even if they don’t attend. That gives religious leaders a chance to reconnect with larger numbers of people who still identify with religious traditions but don’t participate.

“These are the people who haven’t completely separated,” he said, so there is still a chance to reengage with them.

Dan Cox. (Photo courtesy of American Enterprise Institute)

The folks who rarely attend services are also most at risk of disappearing completely. If that happens, churches and denominations would be in big trouble, said Cox.

“There are millions of people in that category,” he said. “If they go, I think it’s going to cripple a lot of a lot of denominations, and a lot of congregations are going to have to fold.”

Cox also worried about an increase in what he called “religious polarization,” between people who are active in religious congregations and those who have no involvement at all. 

“We’re going to quickly come to a place where a good chunk of the country is not only going to have different views about religion, and different religious experiences, they’re not going to be able to relate to each other in any real way,” he said.

Reengaging with people who have loose ties to churches will not be easy, said author and scholar Diana Butler Bass, who studies the changing religious landscape. Some people may prefer to attend services or engage spiritual practices online. Others have family challenges and aren’t able to attend.

And disputes over theology and liturgy can make it difficult to be part of a church.

Then there’s the human element.

Even before the pandemic, Americans were experiencing a loneliness crisis, with fewer spending time with friends or participating in social and civic activities. Many have lost the habits and skills of making friends and creating community, said Bass.

“Churches haven’t really figured that out,” she said. “They often say they are friendly but aren’t really — and lack ways of speaking about friendship theologically and developing friendship as a genuine practice of community.”

The decline in attendance overall comes at a time when many congregations are struggling. The median congregation size in the United States dropped from 137 people in 2000 to 65 as of 2020, according to the Faith Communities Today study. Those Americans who do attend services often go to large congregations, leaving many smaller local churches and houses of worship in difficult straits.

Most congregations have seen attendance decline by about a quarter during the pandemic, said Scott Thumma, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford International University. That decline has hit smaller churches particularly hard. Most churches, he said, have fewer than 100 people. If 25 people are missing from those churches, that has a huge impact.

Scott Thumma COVID study
Scott Thumma (Photo by Shana Sureck Photography)

During the early days of the pandemic, Thumma said, churches innovated because they had to in order to survive. Now that the crisis of the pandemic has ebbed, they need to make long-term adaptations.

“What happened in the pandemic is that all of us were huddling in the basement, while a tornado was going over our heads,” he said. “Now everyone has come out of the basement and everything is completely different. Now we have to be intentionally creative.”

Churches also need to remind people of the importance of gathering together and to invite people to get involved in community outreach and other acts of service, said Thumma, such as volunteering for a food pantry or other ministry.

“Everything has to be hyper-intentional now,” he said.

While things are difficult, focusing on the future works better than just looking at things that are going wrong, said Thumma, who often consults with congregations and is the principal investigator in the long-term study Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations.

“The focus should be, how can we become a better church — rather than, how do we re-create what we used to have?” 

Bob SmietanaBob Smietana is a national reporter for Religion News Service.

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39 thoughts on “More Americans Stay Away from Church as Pandemic Nears Year Three”

  1. the american churches did a real disservice to its members by shutting down. some churches defied the government lockdowns but it’s a shame that more churches did not join them (really all churches should have defied the gov). this certainly had an impact on some people’s departure.

    1. Let’s not blame this solely on the government. We as the body of Christ need to look within. Americans have grown slowly disillusioned with the church over time. While it’s easy to self-righteously blame the government or the culture, neither are the cause of our ills. This site alone reports on the scandals, corruption, idolatry and hypocrisy that have caused us to taint our reputation and impact on the world. And we think people don’t want to walk through our doors because of the government? Or because of culture? That implies we don’t need to do anything.
      I beg to differ. I believe the question is…what can and should we do now to get people back in our pews and under the influence of the gospel?

      1. Where in his comment did he blame the government?

        He specifically states “the american churches did a real disservice to its members by shutting down.” He is not blaming the government, but the “leaders” of the church for choosing to serve the government over God and HIS followers.

        Mt 6:24
        No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.

        The church is now reaping it’s worldly rewards for wanting to keep it’s mammon (501c3 status).

        1. He clearly says “…( really all churches should have defied the gov)” strongly implying that it was “the governments” fault that churches closed down.
          He clearly does blame “the government” here.

          1. The government issues a mandate that goes against God’s Laws, the churches had a choice, follow God, or follow government.

            Mr. Witt pointed out the church leaders chose government over God, he is blaming the leaders of the church for being weak, bowing to man, closing, and not supporting their congregation or the other churches that stayed open.

            “He clearly says “…( really all churches should have defied the gov)” strongly implying that it was “the governments” fault that churches closed down.”

            “”… all churches should have defied the gov…””, pointing to a failure of the churches, not government.

            “strongly implying that it was “the governments” fault that churches closed down.” Not at all, the churches had a choice, and if their faith wasn’t strong enough, then they could have used the government’s laws to stay open, per Cornell Law:

            “The First Amendment guarantees freedoms concerning religion, expression, assembly, and the right to petition. It forbids Congress from both promoting one religion over others and also restricting an individual’s religious practices.”

        2. Andrew – I’m referring to “the government made us shutdown” being used as an easy scapegoat for YEARS of waning influence and interest in the church. Our struggles did not start with covid. Proposing that defying the government (also known as “breaking the law”, but I know we like to only use that when it’s a law we like) would have kept our pews full is feel-good moral grandstanding; the data going back to before covid says otherwise.
          The church as a whole has been bleeding members and attendees for years. It’s a deeper issue than covid.

    2. American churches saved tens, perhaps even hundreds of thousands of lives by closing their doors during the height of the pandemic before the vaccines were available.

      They did the right thing and the responsible ones will do exactly the same again when the next pandemic happens (hopefully not in our lifetimes).

      Churches who put the lives of their parishioners in harm’s way were not doing God’s work.

      1. “Churches who put the lives of their parishioners in harm’s way were not doing God’s work.”

        So any church that has sent missionaries into countries that will attack Christians for preaching the gospel are not doing God’s work?

        What about church outreaches in crime ridden areas? What about church outreach for drug addicts? Convicted violent felons? Homeless? Mentally ill?

        Jesus spoke on the dangers we would face following His ministry:

        Matthew 10:16-23

        “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves. But beware of men: for they will deliver you up to the councils, and they will scourge you in their synagogues; And ye shall be brought before governors and kings for my sake, for a testimony against them and the Gentiles. But when they deliver you up, take no thought how or what ye shall speak: for it shall be given you in that same hour what ye shall speak. For it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father which speaketh in you.

        And the brother shall deliver up the brother to death, and the father the child: and the children shall rise up against their parents, and cause them to be put to death. And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake: but he that endureth to the end shall be saved.

        But when they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another: for verily I say unto you, Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel, till the Son of man be come.”

        Being a Christian means sometimes putting yourself in harms way, in service to God.

    1. I think the Faustian Bargain is being made by church leaders who have embraced Christian Nationalism and its concomitant racial and sexual bigotry. This marriage of convenience to Trump and the his fellow-travelers will come back to bite them.

    2. “Going woke”? No person, community, church or organization “goes woke.” That phrase alone proves you don’t know what woke means.

        1. “Woke” is an African American Vernacular term that means “to be aware of injustice, especially racism.” (Now it’s misused and applied to ANYTHING progressive.)
          Either you – as an individual – are woke, or you’re not. I’m still waiting for someone to explain why it’s horrible to be woke, especially as a Christian.

          1. Marin,

            The term has been successfully “vilified”. Thanks for reminding us of its original definition and why it should line-up with our Christian values.

            Love one another (John 13:34
            Be devoted to one another (Romans 12:10)
            Honor one another above yourselves (Romans 12:10)
            Be impartial one another (Romans 12:16)
            Build up one another (Romans 14:19)
            Be in harmony with one another (Romans 15:5)
            Receive one another (Romans 15:7)
            Admonish one another (Romans 15:14)
            Greet one another (Romans 16:16)
            Care for one another (1 Corinthians 12:25)
            Serve one another (Galatians 5:13)
            Bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2)
            Be patient with one another (Ephesians 4:2)
            Be kind to one another (Ephesians 4:32)
            Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (Ephesians 5:19)
            Forgive one another (Colossians 3:13)
            Teach one another (Colossians 3:16)
            Comfort one another (1 Thessalonians 4:18)
            Encourage one another (1 Thessalonians 5:11)
            Exhort one another (Hebrews 3:13)
            Consider one another (Hebrews 10:24)
            Pray for one another (James 5:16)
            Confess your faults to one another (James 5:16)
            Show hospitality to one another (1 Peter 4:9)
            Submit to one another (1 Peter 5:5)

          2. Thank you for the clarification. So the term “Woke” was hijacked by other groups for their own purposes and taking the focus off of the original meaning of the phrase. That makes a lot of sense. Satan/evil cannot create anything, he/it inverts, corrupts, causes confusion, or perverts anything that leads us to the Father.

  2. I don’t want to go because of the weakness in the gospel. All these pastors want to do with the young group is stay relevant. Worship entertains them, just enough preaching to keep them for another week. I can’t find God in any church where I live.

  3. Interesting that Liberals and Conservatives saw very close increase in % that never attend. For Liberals, 48%, for Conservatives, 42%. The verbal analysis does not note those #’s. The headline for that chart is misleading.

  4. What is not noticed, is that some of the people who have left, have seen dissatisfaction with their church. These people have formed or found small home fellowship groups. A better and meaningful way to practice 1 Corinthians 14:26, incorporating practice of open participation of all believers in providing mutual edification of the Body. Many ‘churchies’ (that is me, included) are not familiar or comfortable with a small group that is not strongly led by a single charismatic leader. This is another way to live in new covenant style relationship with people, leading to a deeper reliance on Jesus as our head. I would be pleased to hear your comment, [for or against], if you have any opinion on this concept.

    1. You wrote “Many ‘churchies’ (that is me, included) are not familiar or comfortable with a small group that is not strongly led by a single charismatic leader.”

      I’m not clear about what you mean. Is it necessary to have a “charismatic leader”? It seems that many problems we hear about at the Roys Report and elsewhere are due to people putting too much faith in charismatic leaders.

      1. Good question – thank you. I had written in a confusing manner. I was referring to the concept of meeting, under God, in (small) home fellowship groups.
        * better stated: ‘many church people would be uncomfortable finding primary fellowship in a small setting where each member ‘equally’ shares encouragement and edification of the group’. That is because, (in my experience) by human nature, we are more inclined and attracted to a successful, strong leader. The western church model typically utilizes a certain, recognized, confidant leader, who members would listen to and take their cues from (the pastor). I would agree, that you are correct – that many problems we hear about, involve us putting too much faith in charismatic leaders.
        I must say, that I am not advocating that leaders are bad, or strong leaders are poor, or charismatic people are not good. And, I do not mean to say that we do not need pastoral leadership.
        What I would like to point out, in reference to this good article, is that there are other (not well recognized) models of assembly where we can gather to come together, worship God, and seek Jesus first and highest, with our brothers and sisters. What are your thoughts?

        1. Thanks for taking the time to help me understand your points.

          People’s expectations are part of the problem. If people expect a preacher that’s sort of the church equivalent of Yo-Yo Ma, they’ll gravitate toward “performers,” ministers that have style and flair and deliver excitement on a regular basis. There aren’t that many pastors who are like that. Consequently, some places get bigger and others get not so big. Then if something explodes, people are disappointed, like devoted Rams fans have been this year with their team that won last season’s Super Bowl and this season is out of the running. “Woe are we! The Rams let us down! Let’s root for the Chargers instead.”

          See if you can find a copy of “The Shape of the Liturgy” by Dom Gregory Dix. It is a history of the liturgy from the very beginning. In the liturgy, everyone has a part, whether priest, deacon or lay person. This has been the pattern from the beginning. The goal of the liturgy is the Eucharist. There is a sermon but that is not the ultimate point in the service.

          I happen to be Eastern Orthodox. The liturgy is full of teaching which so many claim they want. Read the book at least through the first two chapters and ask yourself if this is the way it should be.

          Actually, I think a lot of people want performance. If they aren’t stoked, they think something’s wrong and go church shopping. People have been led to expect the minister to deliver breathtaking sermons every Sunday. Why is that? Having small groups is fine but what if the time in a small group isn’t “fulfilling” – then what? Off to another thing?

    2. there is no biblical concept of a christian who is not a member of a local church. and a local church is not meeting with your friends in the living room — that is fellowship. the bible provides a model and definition of a church. it has a qualified minister who preaches the gospel and administers the sacraments. it has elders that rule and it has deacons who serve.

      1. Yes Wes, I completely get what you are saying, and generally agree with you. But this premise works best in ‘western’ civil societies. What I mean is this: using your simple statement – we could conclude that the believers meeting in North Korea are not ‘christians’, and some missionaries, starting a small work in Middle Eastern closed countries and not ‘christian’, etc.

        1. missionaries are members of a church and under their supervision. people living in oppressed societies where christianity is illegal are obviously constrained in a way that they worship as they can. my statement stands.

        1. @Marin – they didn’t have buildings … yet. However, from what I have read about the archaeological discoveries is that some of these house churches could include more than 100 people attending.

          1. Thanks, Don. I was just confused as Wes’s application of a definition of a church seems rather legalistic, especially as we read about disciples meeting in homes throughout the book of Acts.
            I don’t think God cares about the type of building. I’ve been a part of a small church that met in the pastor’s living room until we had enough money (and members) to meet at a school gym. No matter where we were, we had time of preaching, communion, prayer, and fellowship.
            My current church has small groups that meet in living rooms of various volunteers – where we study the Bible, relisten to parts of the sermon, have times of confession and testimony, pray, and occasionally take midweek communion. Many did this (if they were comfortable) throughout covid.
            To dismiss “meeting with your friends in the living room” as mere fellowship is rather judgmental and legalistic.

        2. Acts 16

          11 From Troas we put out to sea and sailed straight for Samothrace, and the next day we went on to Neapolis.
          12 From there we traveled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district of Macedonia. And we stayed there several days.
          13 On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there.
          14 One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.
          15 When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And she persuaded us.

    3. Except there is no evidence of this happening. I’ve seen many such claims about a hidden cadre of Christians left undetected by surveys over the last 25 years but I have never seen any evidence that it’s happening in significant numbers.

      The fact that the decline in numbers is heavily skewed toward the youngest adults also casts serious doubt on the claim. As the article says, there is (and has been) a sizeable generational shift away from the faith as more and more young people abandon the family faith traditions. There is simple no sign that they are attending home fellowships instead.

  5. Im glad to report my church has not shut down even once during all of this. The word is being preached and sacraments administered every Sunday without interruption. My pastor refused to shut the doors at all cost. Yes we did distancing and masks but shutting down is not an option. The liturgy must continue.

    1. Will: Are you saying your pastor would have kept the doors open even if some people that were attending church started dying from COVID?

  6. “These were folks …on the fringes to begin with,” … “They didn’t need much of a push …, to
    just be done…”

    “…conservatives, those over 65… saw less drop-off.”

    “They went out from us, but they were not of us.” I John 2:19; not because the government
    is the enemy. Those sentiments lead to an attempt to overthrow the government – which God
    created.

    “…some people — including the immunocompromised — may still be attending digital services…”

    “Others have family challenges and aren’t able to attend.”

    Church attendance alone proves nothing. People go to church for a myriad of reasons.

    Some preachers have died handling snakes trying to prove God will protect you. They can also have nefarious reasons for wanting people in attendance. Death isn’t the only side effect of covid. Unlike pastors, congregants do not generally have the job security, health insurance, or income needed due to a severe case of covid.

    Let’s make church safe, let’s encourage people to return, but let’s not condemn those who feel they need to worship online for a time.

    “Churches haven’t really figured that out,” … “They often say they are friendly but aren’t really …”

    “Younger Americans are less likely in general to identify as religious or attend services…”

    “Woke” is a political term, not a biblical one. It also has a negative, hateful, connotation to a generation that HAS learned to embrace others with love and acceptance, whether they agree with them or not.

    “Those Americans who do attend services often go to large congregations…”

    You can attend a mega church without ANY involvement or service. Just give and be entertained.

    “The focus should be, how can we become a better church — rather than, how do we re-create what we used to have?”

    Amen!

    1. You can scapegoat “wokeness” all you like but young people aren’t finding what they want/need in conservative congregations either and in increasing numbers.

      If the power of the Gospel can’t cope with a little care and concern for minorities of all stripes then what is it good for?

      1. If you’re implying that “I” am using “wokeness” as a scapegoat for church decline, especially among the younger generation, then “you” are mistaken. I believe the phrase is a ruse to withhold truth and love. It is political and has no place in the vernacular of Christians – in my opinion.

        It is a fact that church membership has been on the decline for years, but for many reasons. This generation has reinvented many things. God’s formular for corporate worship shouldn’t be one of them.

        Maybe, just maybe, they don’t want to be associated with hateful rhetoric towards their classmates, teammates, co-workers, family members, etc… that streams from some “professing” Christians. Surely, they don’t want to live in the hostile society of the past. Conceivably, the hypocrisy of their parents has turned them off.

        Perhaps there will be a steady decline because ultimately the true church will be smaller than “we” thought it would be. Covid isn’t the cause. Possibly it was just the manifestation.

        Where will we be if the masses refuse to obey traffic laws, pay income taxes, educate their kids, and so on? Defying the government “definitely” isn’t the solution, or precedent.

        1. Hi Debra, my apologies. I skimmed your comment a little too quickly and made some wrong assumptions. I agree with your opinion that the Covid lockdown isn’t the root cause. It merely accelerated a trend that was already in progress.

          It’s pretty much what I expected to see three years on. People, especially young people, simply got out of the habit of attending church regularly and some of the find that they didn’t miss it, or they found something else among the increasing number of things seeing their attention in an increasingly competitive society.

          More than ever you need a positive reason to attend church. It is no longer the default it has been for the last thousand years or more, and churches are not making their case to today’s youth.

        2. The corporate worship practiced by western Christianity is not God’s formula. It’s man’s formula based on Greco-Roman tradition. For details, take a look at Pagan Christianity by Frank Viola and George Barna.

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