WASHINGTON – Today marks the second Easter celebrated around the time of COVID-19, and vaccinations and optimism aside, things are still not back to normal in most places of worship.
Over the past year, the pandemic changed the way Americans worship, and other data shows that religious affiliation itself is undergoing rapid changes. So on this holy day for Christians, the data download takes a look at church attendance and faith in America.
Starting with worship directly related to today, how do the pews look this Sunday compared to a normal Easter? They were less crowded than usual, according to data from the Pew Research Center.
The Pew poll, conducted a few weeks ago in early March, showed that 27 percent of American adults planned to go to church in person this year. If the year were normal, 44 percent of that group said they would be in services at Easter.
That’s a big difference, a 17-point drop, which means there should be more room for social distancing in most churches this year.
And it’s a reminder of how strong Covid’s grip on the country still is. Every Sunday is important to Christians, of course, but Easter is a special case, one that even the least frequent parishioners attend. That decline shows that there is still much concern among the faithful.
Part of that drop could be due less to a desire to attend church than to not having a church to physically visit. That same survey asked regular church goers about the current state of their congregations compared to July. He discovered that there were more places of worship open, but there were still exceptions and attendance restrictions.
Since July, there has been a decrease in the number of churches that have their doors closed. It has been reduced by about half. But nearly two-thirds of those open churches require some form of Covid-19 restrictions, such as social distancing, which means fewer seats available.
Only about 1 in 10 places of worship are open normally as of this Easter, according to Pew data.
With those numbers in mind, what have the faithful been doing in their appointed hours of worship? In the last month, many of them have been worshiping online or with the help of a television.
That’s still a third of the adults who have participated in virtual worship from the comfort of their own home in the last month. And, as we contemplate the long-term impact of Covid on the country, don’t forget the role that those virtual or televised services could play in the future of worship in the United States.
This week, Gallup released data showing that the number of Americans claiming to be members of a congregation dropped to less than 50 percent for the first time in 2020.
To be clear, that’s not the 47 percent of adults who say they believe in God or even the 47 percent of adults who say they have a religion that they subscribe to. It is 47 percent of those who claim to be members of a specific church.
Taken together, the numbers pose a question. When the “virtual services” are over and the faithful have to decide if they want to physically return to church, what decision will they make? In a sense, it is a form of the same question we all ask about work and school.
As with other elements of society, we are in a time of transition. And we will have to wait to see what the long-term impact of Covid will be on places of worship. Next Easter, when we all hope the virus is completely gone, we could have a more complete view of the lasting impacts of the pandemic in the way we worship.