Survey of Pastors Shows That Half Expect Post-COVID Attendance to Decline

in person service with masks on

According to the Church Pulse leader survey from the Barna Group, more than half of Protestant Pastors expect their worship attendance to decline after COVID-19 has ended. 

The findings are from week 17 of their survey, which draws from a poll of 422 Protestant pastors between Sept. 10 and 18th. According to the polling firm, the margin of error varied between 4.77% and 7.65%, depending on the sample. In week 17 of the poll, 46% of pastors said that they expect attendance to have "declined slightly" by the end of the pandemic, while an additional 6% responded that they expect attendance to have "declined dramatically." 

The 46% who believe that worship attendance will have "declined slightly" is the largest percentage of responders since week 1 of the report in March. Overall, the number of pastors who gave this response has increased from below 20% for the first six weeks of the survey to over 40% since week 12. The sense that attendance will decline is perhaps a sign of worsening attendance and a lack of confidence in public safety.

Despite this, 92% of respondents said they were either "very confident" or "confident" that their church will "survive" the pandemic.Many churches have returned to in-person services with a level of social distancing guidelines since they first paused worship services earlier this year, as the proportion of churches that are "open for normal use, with some precautions in place" is 65% according to the Church Pulse survey. In addition, 2% are open with no precautions in place; 16% are open for small gatherings or meetings only; 11% are open for staff only; 2% are open to provide crisis services; and 4% are still closed to everyone.The survey also found that 54% of pastors are holding services in their usual building, 15% expect to do so this month; 23% expect to do so by October and 13% did not expect to do so until 2021.

More pastors in week 17 believe that their congregants' personal faith is declining through the pandemic. Only 1% said so in the early weeks of the survey, but 18% now agreed that church members' faith was diminishing by the most recent week of the survey. Many in both the media and church circles have speculated about the permanent damage that the pandemic might have on American churches, including donations, attendance, and missions.

About 9 in 10 pastors said they expect their own churches to survive the pandemic. However, in an August interview with NPR, Barna President David Kinnaman did not mirror the Pastors' optimism. He explained that as many as 1 in 5 churches could permanently close within the next 18 months due to COVID-19 and shutdowns."The disruptions related to giving, and maybe even as important to all that, is that even for those churches that have reopened, they're seeing much smaller numbers of people show up. So simply reopening a church doesn't fix the underlying economic challenges that you might have," he said in the interview.

He also argued that online services would remain: "Obviously, there will be a lot more online attendance than ever before, even after all churches reopen. I think this digital church is here to stay""I think also it's really going to change the way people think about their donation relationship with local churches as well. There'll have to be an even greater demonstration of the value that a church brings not just to those who attend but also those who are part of this community," he continued.