In the US, COVID decreased prayer attendance but increased levels of faith

All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants, because you have obeyed My command.

Genesis

22:

18

(the israel bible)

January 23, 2023

3 min read

Attendance at churches and synagogues has not returned to pre-pandemic levels but, for many people, the COVID experience strengthened their faith with many seeing it as a message from God, a recent study has shown.

The Survey Center on American Life teamed up with researchers at NORC at the University of Chicago to measure religious affiliation and attendance both before the pandemic (2018 to March 2020) and again in spring 2022. The results were published earlier this month in a report titled “Faith After the Pandemic: How COVID-19 Changed American Religion”. 

The Survey Center on American Life is a project of the American Enterprise Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to understanding the way cultural, political, and technological changes are shaping the lives of ordinary Americans.

STUDY: RELIGIOUS ATTENDANCE LOWER POST-PANDEMIC

The study polled 9,425 Americans by phone and online between February and April 2022. To help researchers focus on pandemic-driven changes, the study included only individuals who had registered their religious affiliations and church attendance patterns in a previous survey between 2018 and March 2020.

The report concluded that religious identity remained stable through the pandemic but religious attendance was significantly lower in spring 2022 than it was pre-pandemic.

“Rather than completely upending established patterns, the pandemic accelerated ongoing trends in religious change,” wrote study authors Lindsay Witt-Swanson, Jennifer Benz, and Daniel Cox. “Young people, those who are single, and self-identified liberals ceased attending religious services at all at much higher rates than other Americans did. Even before the pandemic, these groups were experiencing the most dramatic declines in religious membership, practice, and identity.”

Young adults (ages 18–29) reported the greatest change in religious attendance following the pandemic with 42% reporting different levels of church attendance than they had previously. Just 35% of Americans ages 30–49 reported changed attendance, as did 28% among those ages 50–64 and 25 percent among those 65 and older.

30% of young adults reported decreased attendance after the pandemic, compared with 12% who increased it.

24% of Americans aged 30–49 decreased their attendance, while 11% increased it. Among adults aged 50–64, 19% decreased attendance while 9% increased it. The decrease and increase among Americans 65 and older were 16% and 9%, respectively.

PEW: CHURCHES-SYNAGOGUES OPENING BUT PEOPLE NOT RETURNING

The study also cited a Pew Research report that revealed that nearly one in three churches or religious organizations were completely closed in the summer of 2020. While most held virtual or outdoor services, only 13% of people attended conventional prayer services at that time.

A similar study released in March reported that 43% of respondents said that their house of worship is currently open and holding services the same way it did before the pandemic. 47% say their congregation is open but with modifications still in place due to the pandemic, such as mask requirements or social distancing. 5% say their congregation is still completely closed to in-person worship. 

Before the coronavirus pandemic, 75% of Americans reported attending religious services at least once a year, including about 26% who attended at least a few times a month. 

The survey reported that currently, 27% of Americans reported having attended religious services in person during the previous month. While this is an improvement from pandemic levels, it is still lower than pre-pandemic levels.

NON-ATTENDANCE ON THE RISE

Non-attendance is on the rise. Before the pandemic, 25% of Americans reported that they never attend religious services while after the pandemic, this rose to 33%. 

Twice as many adults decreased attendance as compared to the number who increased attendance.

This trend did not seem to affect those who were already more engaged in attending religious services. Before the pandemic, 26% of Americans reported attending religious services at least once a week, similar to the 24% who did so in spring 2022.

This downward trend affected different faiths to different degrees. Mormons, white evangelical Christians, and Jews showed relatively little change in their attendance patterns. White mainline Protestants, White Catholics, and Hispanic Catholics also experienced a notable uptick in those who never attend.

FAITH BEING STRENGTHENED BY COVID

While these trends may be concerning, another Pew Research report conducted in the summer of 2020 suggested that experiencing the pandemic strengthened the faith of many people. 28% of Americans surveyed reported stronger personal faith because of the pandemic, and the same share thinks the religious faith of Americans overall has strengthened. This was substantially higher than in other economically developed countries surveyed.

A Pew Research Center report published in October 2020 showed that 35% of Americans say the pandemic carries one or more lessons from God.

This was especially true of white evangelicals, of whom 49% say their own religious faith has grown. This is true for 33% of Catholics and 20% of mainline Protestants. Just 5% of Americans who report no religious affiliation say their religious faith has increased due to the coronavirus outbreak.

68% of US adults say their own faith has not changed much and only 4% say their religious faith has weakened as a result of the outbreak.

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