How American churches are recovering from pandemic shutdowns and divisions
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The second Sunday in May 2020 dawned clear and cool, a meteorological miracle in central Alabama. Pastor Brandon Scroggins breathed a prayer of thanks for the unseasonable extension of spring as he and his worship team set up speakers in the parking lot of Reformation Baptist Church.
For the previous seven weeks, Scroggins had delivered his sermons to a solitary video camera that broadcast the messages online. But this Sunday, church members would finally get to worship together again, carefully distanced from one another in their cars. The church had set up a short-range radio transmitter to beam the audio over the expanse of asphalt. Call it drive-in church. That was the plan at least.
But when the cars started rolling into the parking lot, church members didn’t stay in them. They jumped out and ran to each other, embracing in long hugs. Those who had health concerns still enjoyed the moment from a safe distance. “Men and women alike had tears streaming down their faces,” Scroggins said.
But despite the joyous reunion, life remained far from normal, and Scroggins wondered whether his tiny congregation could survive the severe pandemic headwinds still ahead. “I heard about a lot of churches that might close,” he said. “And honestly, I wondered if we would be one of them. There was so much turmoil. I wondered financially if we’re going to be able to make it when all of our businesses are closed down.”
Scroggins wasn’t the only one worried. Christians across the country feared the pandemic’s harm to the Church. Would online services become the new normal? Would weeks of staying home cause Christians to lose their bond with their local church and drop out altogether? Later, divisions over masks and the vaccine hit some local congregations hard. Would churches ever recover?
In January, the American Enterprise Institute’s (AEI) Survey Center on American Life published a comprehensive look at the pandemic’s impact on church attendance. It found that before the pandemic, 25 percent of Americans reported never attending services of any religion. By spring 2022, that number had risen to 33 percent.
While it sounds bleak, that statistic comes with an important caveat.
“Nearly all Americans who have shifted to no longer attending religious services at all were those who infrequently attended before the pandemic,” wrote study authors Lindsay Witt-Swanson, Jennifer Benz, and Daniel Cox. “Few Americans who were regularly attending before the pandemic report that they no longer attend at all.”
For Scroggins’ small church in rural Wetumpka, 2020 had been shaping up as a rough year even before COVID hit. The congregation had suffered through a split in late 2019. When the pandemic brought in-person services to a halt in March 2020, Scroggins feared it would shred the bonds between the remaining 60 regular attenders. Instead, it brought them together.
“The younger were helping the older to navigate Zoom meetings and such,” Scroggins said. “The older were sharing wisdom with the younger.” It was the most significant expression of Christian unity Scroggins had experienced in two decades of ministry.
After that first parking lot service, church members announced they were ready to move back inside. So, the church adopted increased precautions and reopened the next week. Some members still chose to watch from home, but services essentially returned to normal after that.
CITY CHURCH, a Presbyterian Church in America congregation in Baltimore, had about 80 regular attenders before the pandemic. Pastor Patrick Donohue planted the church in 2015 in the upscale neighborhood of Roland Park, which boasts its own private security patrol and some of the city’s most prestigious private schools. The church stayed online-only until July 2020—in full compliance with city ordinances. During that time, the leaders discussed engaging in civil disobedience but ultimately decided not to because the venue where City Church meets is just a few minutes’ drive from Johns Hopkins University. “We were fearful of alienating a medical community that we were trying to reach,” Donohue said. Two Johns Hopkins doctors were members of City Church during that time. “We really relied heavily on them and their professional opinion for the decisions that we made.”
But as the pandemic dragged on, about one-third of City Church’s members left. Of those, Donohue believes half stopped attending church altogether. They were generally younger people and those with political views that leaned left. That matches the findings of the AEI study. But those same groups have been dropping out of church at the highest rates since the late 1990s. The pandemic may have accelerated their exit but probably didn’t cause it.
Although City Church was careful to stay out of politics, Donohue said 2020’s charged political climate still had an effect. “They were just highly offended by Trump and everything he stood for. I think hearing that evangelicalism, by and large, stood behind Donald Trump, it sort of soured the view of Christianity.”
The other half of the people who left City Church switched to other local congregations that Donohue describes as “seeker-oriented or liberal.” He thinks those members were probably already looking to change and the pandemic provided the impetus.
It also provided the means, thanks to the prevalence of services streaming online. In a study published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Nicholas Higgins and Paul Djupe found remarkably high levels of “church shopping” during the pandemic. They surveyed people in October 2020 about their religious attendance and found that 34.8 percent reported visiting another congregation either online or in person during the preceding six months.
“In their lifetime, only about 30 to 40 percent have ever reported shopping churches (and most of this was due to moving), so finding that amount in just six months would indicate a huge jump,” Higgins said.
Unsurprisingly, Higgins and Djupe found that people whose home church was shut down were more likely to church shop. The larger the church, the more likely members were to look at other congregations. The researchers also found that more frequent church attenders were more likely to shop. And some of them did end up changing churches. But Higgins said it’s important to remember some of them would have switched anyway: “We have a market-driven religious context here. And it’s very individualistic.”
LIFEWAY RESEARCH, an evangelical research firm that studies the church and the culture, publishes an estimate of church openings and closures every four to five years. In 2019, it estimated that 4,500 Protestant churches closed and 3,000 new Protestant churches opened. Scott McConnell, Lifeway’s executive director, says his organization won’t produce its next estimate for another year, but so far the signs are reassuring. “Anecdotally, we’ve not seen mass closures like some people predicted early in the pandemic,” he said. But the pandemic likely hastened closures that were already imminent.
According to the AEI study, mainline denominations were among the hardest hit by the pandemic. The percentage of white mainline Protestants who report never attending services rose from 17 percent to 24 percent. Conversely, the number of those who attend services regularly dropped—from 19 percent pre-pandemic to 17 percent now.
David Schoen has witnessed that trend firsthand. Schoen is the minister for church legacy and closure at the Church Building & Loan Fund of the United Church of Christ (UCC), a mainline denomination. When UCC congregations plan to close their doors for good, Schoen’s job is to advise on issues like selling buildings and putting financial assets to good use.
The UCC currently has 4,724 local congregations. Schoen estimates that between 2012 and 2019, 260 churches closed. But during the pandemic period, from 2020 through 2022, at least 96 churches closed. Schoen expects that figure to rise as he receives more data. He believes the closures were mostly driven by lay leaders already worn out from years of keeping their churches going. They lacked the energy to tackle the additional challenges posed by the pandemic.
“Churches that might have thought about closing in three to five years or five to 10 years, really now saw that they had to attend to it,” he said.
Churches that survived the initial pandemic trial of lockdowns and social distancing faced new challenges—and sources of division—when they reopened.
Public health officials framed masks and the vaccine in ways that aligned with Biblical morality. They described them as a means to protect the vulnerable, something Christians are always called to do. Brandon Scroggins says some of his older church members pressured him to enforce mask-wearing. “They did honestly think, ‘If younger people would love me, they would wear a mask.’” He tried to explain that members had different beliefs about the efficacy of masks and that some saw them as representing government overreach.
Other church leaders embraced what seemed to them Christian elements of the public health messaging. The BioLogos Foundation, started by famed geneticist Francis Collins, who also served as the former head of the National Institutes of Health, published a statement titled “Love Your Neighbor, Get the Shot.” It garnered over 8,000 signatures. The statement called on Christians to get vaccinated because the vaccine is “a provision from God that will prevent disease not only for ourselves but for the most vulnerable among us.” (BioLogos declined WORLD’s request for comment.)
That language appealed to many Christians but alienated others. Pastor Michael Foster planted East River Church in Batavia, Ohio, in December 2020. As his new church grew, so did his following on Twitter, where the American church’s response to the pandemic remains a hotly debated topic. Foster wasn’t shy about sharing his thoughts on Christians’ approach to the pandemic. He calls the BioLogos statement “gaslighting and more and more manipulation.”
People started reaching out to Foster on the social media platform with questions. He says some of East River’s new members were leaving churches they’d attended for years or even decades in frustration over COVID.
Foster also says some people started attending his church after hearing he wrote religious exemption letters for the vaccine. “As a church, we were very careful,” he said. “We said we are against the mandatory nature of these vaccines. This is left to your own discernment.”
East River enforced no COVID restrictions and today has 300 regular attenders. It also has a reputation as a “right-wing” congregation, a label Foster finds frustrating.
“You hear people say like, ‘Oh, you’re that far-right church.’ You’re a far-right church for wanting to get together and worship God without requiring masks to be on? This is nuts,” he said.
FOR MANY CHURCHES, in-person attendance at Sunday service has firmly reestablished itself as the norm. Every Protestant pastor who responded to a Lifeway survey in August 2022 reported their church was meeting as before.
Patrick Donohue said City Church’s first in-person service after months away was hard. “I would love to say our first public service back felt like a triumphal return, but it didn’t.” Everyone wore masks and sat far apart. Leaders were careful to make sure no one felt guilted into returning.
Although attendance took a hit, City Church has climbed back slowly. “But it was a huge reshuffling of the deck,” Donohue said. Now, three years later, weekly attendance is slightly above pre-pandemic levels, even as some members still watch online.
“We have debated left and right, back and forth till the cows come home about whether to shut the livestream down,” Donohue said. “Are we enabling folks to continue with a watered-down version of what the church really ought to be?”
Sometimes people watch online due to health concerns. But it’s convenience that motivates others. Brandon Scroggins says he regularly talks to other pastors who are grappling with the best way to exhort the latter group to come back to church. Scroggins tells his congregation in no uncertain terms, “Jesus-and-jammies is not the same thing. We have to be in-person, flesh and blood with one another.”
Scroggins believes he made the right decision in reopening his church early and leaving masks and vaccines to people’s own judgment. In the end, church members respected each other’s views. Not a single person left.
Visitors who came after COVID revealed deeper political divisions with their home church. “I feel like my pastor is reading from a CNN prompter every Sunday,” one visitor told Scroggins.
“People realized their pastor had radically different views than they do,” Scroggins said. He noticed what he called “a correlation” between pastors who wanted to almost indefinitely close their doors and those sympathetic to Black Lives Matter, critical race theory, and other left-wing causes. “How that may or may not be connected is probably a bit above my pay grade.”
Reformation Baptist eventually attracted about 20 new regular attenders, a big jump for a rural Alabama church. That makes Scroggins happy, but he’s mostly just relieved. “This was the most stressful time to be a pastor. I did not think this would turn out to be a church growth strategy.”
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