Across US, houses of worship struggle to rebuild attendance

The pastor of the church said there were only three worshippers on Sundays when they resumed in-person services late last year.

Since then, attendance has inched back up, but it is still only half of the pre-pandemic turnout.

She said it was frustrating. People seem to want to leave home less these days.

Some houses of worship are better than others. Even though church attendance fell during the worst of the Pandemic last year, many say they are back to regular service attendance.

In a May 2020 poll, 1% of mainline Protestants said they attended in-person services at least once a week. In the new poll, more people say they are doing it now than they were in the previous one.

42% of evangelical Protestants said they did that in 2019, while 37% said they did that in the previous year. In the May 2020 poll, just 11% of people said they attended services in person frequently.

26% of Catholics attend in person at least weekly now, compared with 30% in 2019. In the 2020 poll, only 5% of the bishops were worshiping in person at least weekly.

The pastor at St. Ambrose Catholic Parish in Brunswick, Ohio, said that the six services each weekend drew a total of 3,800 worshippers before the Pandemic. 1,600 or more households are joining online worship, with current weekend attendance at 2,800.

Large churches and small churches have taken a hit in attendance.

The number of people attending services at the church has fallen from 50 to 25 or 30.

He said via email that he was not political enough for some. Some people stopped going to church and others wanted more activities.

Before the Pandemic, online worship was never offered by the church. When in-person worship was stopped for a month in 2020, Elkins did more crisis counseling for congregation members than before.

The First Church of God in Columbus, Ohio, stopped in-person worship between March 2020 and September of this year. On two Sundays in September 2020, worshippers were invited back to the church to try out in-person services.

The senior pastor said that they came dressed like they were working at Chernobyl and that it was obvious they were still uncomfortable.

The predominantly African American church held three services each weekend with an average attendance of 2,500. Only 500 people are allowed into a sanctuary that can seat more than 1,500 for a single service on Sunday.

The return to in-person worship gives us a sense of community. You have safety as well.

The average Sunday attendance at All Saints' Episcopal Church in the New York City suburb of Brooklyn dropped from 140 to 30 before it rebounded to 120. The Rev. Steven Paulikas is credited with the mandatory mask policy.

He said that wearing a mask makes people feel better about their health and allows them to worship God.

St. Barnabas Lutheran Church in Cary, Illinois, halted in-person, indoor worship for more than six months in 2020 due to the Pandemic. The drive-in services were held in the parking lot.

The pastor, Sarah Wilson, said that before the Pandemic, 115 people would attend one of the services. There is one service and attendance is down.

She said that some families are still nervous about being in a room with other people even though most of them are vaccine free. Other people have rearranged their priorities and worship isn't one of them.

The Friendswood United Methodist Church in the Houston suburb of Friendswood has had to deal with a number of disruptions, including flooding during a winter storm last February that rendered the sanctuary unusable. Jim Bass said that it reopened for services this month.

Bass was pleased that 650 people showed up when the sanctuary reopened for high-energy, music-filled services on December 5.

He said that the average attendance has been only half of what it was during the Pandemic.

Online services were an alternative to in-person attendance at Friendswood. He considers them a plus for elderly congregation members worried about their health, but a negative for others who are disconnected from the church.

Bass said that they have become spectators.

The recent Hannukah celebrations at Temple Beth El in Charlotte, North Carolina, drew about 300 people in person. The attendance is half of pre-pandemic levels, but an improvement over periods earlier this year when only a few worshippers showed up.

He said it was demoralizing and painful to lead worship. In October and November, people got the booster and their children got vaccinations.

The Jewish High Holy days were observed with no in-person services in September due to a surge in COVID cases. The sanctuary was filled with cardboard cutouts of congregation members, including children and pets, so it wouldn't look empty for online services.

The range of weekly attendance is close to pre-pandemic levels.

The seating is spread out, and we are still wearing masks. Our members love it.

According to the AP-NORC poll, online worship has been embraced by many evangelical Protestants. 3 in 10 have livestreamed services at least weekly in recent months, compared with 1 in 10 Catholics or mainline Protestants.

The poll found that evangelical Protestants pray privately at a higher rate than mainline Protestants and Catholics.

About a quarter of evangelical Protestants have recently talked by phone or video conference with a religious or spiritual leader, compared with about one in 10 mainline Protestants and Catholics.

Even with fewer worshippers, faith leaders such as Mills see some positives, such as more energy in the church.

She said that the people who really want to be there are the ones showing up right now. There is a lot of joy in the room on Sunday mornings. It is one of the reasons that I still love my job.


A sample designed to be representative of the U.S. population was used in the AP-NORC poll. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 4 percentage points.


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