The Story: Church attendance has been declining since the pandemic. But has the pandemic simply exacerbated a trend we hadn’t noticed?
The Background: According to several recent surveys and polls, church attendance has been on the decline during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Data collected in the summer of 2020 by Barna found that about one-third of practicing Christians (32 percent) “have dropped out of church for the time being.” A Gallup poll taken last March also found that, for the first time in eight decades, Americans’ membership in houses of worship dropped below 50 percent. Only 47 percent of adults in the United States claimed to be a member of a church, mosque, or synagogue, a 23-point decline since 2000.
A recent analysis by the Institute for Family Studies using data from the American Family Survey finds that religious attendance has also declined significantly in the past two years. According to the analysis, Americans who are young or old are more likely than those in the middle age groups to have experienced a drop in their church attendance.
Attendance by both older adults (those 65+) and younger adults (ages 18-34) declined by about 10 percentage points between 2019 and 2021. Black Americans were also more likely than others to see a sharp decline in church attendance. In 2019, 45 percent of black Americans attended religious service regularly, but by 2021, that number had dropped to 30 percent. The decline was 6 percent for Hispanic and Asian adults and 5 percent for white adults.
What It Means: Before we can determine how sharply church attendance has declined, we need to know how many people have been coming to church. Unfortunately, that’s difficult to determine because Americans exaggerate their level of attendance. For example, a Gallup poll taken in 2000 found that 70 percent of American adults claimed to be a member of a church, synagogue, or mosque. That doesn’t match reality.
In that year, there were roughly 343,000 religious congregations in the United States (3,727 synagogues, 1,209 mosques, and 338,000 churches). If we divide the adult population in 2000 (209,128,094) by the number of religious congregations (343,000), there would have been an average of 610 members in every church, synagogue, and mosque in America. Since the median church in the United States at that time had 137 participants in worship on Sunday mornings, that would mean every church in America had, in the year 2000, about four-and-a-half times as many members as attenders.
Most churches in America are, of course, too small to have 610 members. The reality, known to sociologists of religion for decades, is that adults in the United States wildly exaggerate their level of involvement with their local church. Americans simply do not attend or belong to church at levels anywhere close to what we have claimed.
What the latest poll results most likely reveal is that an increasing number of Americans simply do not feel the social pressure to exaggerate their claims about church attendance. Within a few years, the self–reported results might begin to reflect actual attendance more accurately. For now, though, what we should pay attention to is the trend line—which has been declining for decades.
Take, for instance, the results of the American Family Survey. While the results are likely to be somewhat inflated, they appear to be closer to actual attendance than the Gallup survey. According to that study, about one-in-three (34 percent) of Americans in 2019 attended worship one to two times per month. Today, that figure is creeping closer to one-in-four (28 percent)—a decline of 6 percent.
At the level of the individual church, a decline of 6 percent might not even be noticeable or considered significant. Currently, the median church each week has 65 people in attendance. This means that half of all churches have fewer than 65 people in their weekly worship service. If those smaller congregations lose 6 percent of their attendance then only four people will have stopped coming to church. Even many small churches would not necessarily consider such a decline to be alarming, especially during a pandemic.
However, if we examine a longer timeline, such as the past two decades, we see that this decline began long before COVID-19. In 2000, the Faith Communities Today (FACT) study found that the median evangelical worship service attendance among U.S. congregations was 137. Today, it is only 65. In 2000, more than half of churches (53 percent) reported they were growing by 5 percent or more. But in the years studied since then (2005, 2008, 2015, and 2020), more than half of churches (52 percent) say they were declining by at least 5 percent.
But the declines aren’t shared equally by every church. Most of the decline seen in 2020 came from medium-sized congregations (those sized between 51 and 500) that were getting smaller (a median decrease of about 12 percent). The smallest faith communities had no net median change, nor did those in the 500- to 1,500-size range. Only congregations whose attendance was over 1,500 in 2015 had a median growth rate, of more than 6 percent.
Based on these findings we can conclude that fewer people feel the need to claim to be a member of a church they never attend, that large churches are growing while medium churches are shrinking, and that the decline in attendance predated the pandemic. In other words, the facts about church attendance in America are complicated. We may be experiencing a decline in “cultural Christianity,” a general shift from medium to large churches, a decline exacerbated by a global pandemic, or all these trends at once. All that we can know with certainty is that, whether attendance shrinks or grows, God will continue to build his church (Mt. 16:13–26).