Since March 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted our lives in multiple ways, including at church. In those communities living with restrictions, many churches had to discontinue in-person services for lengthy periods or adjust ways of conducting their services. Some churches embraced live streaming, while others met in small groups, in homes or parks.
What long term impact has COVID on church attendance patterns? While we don’t know the full impact yet, we do have some initial clues.
In wider Australian society, based on the Australian Community Survey run by NCLS Research, there was a drop in religious service attendance in 2020. However, by Nov 2021 Australians reported that they attended religious services at pre-pandemic levels (21%). The NCLS Research team will continue to check these attendance patterns over time.
As we have collected information from churches on the patterns of their churchgoers, we have heard anecdotes that indicate that COVID has disrupted the ‘rusted on’ attenders.
In states impacted by long lockdowns, the long-term habits of many churchgoers were tested. People spoke of having a break from church life. Others spoke of ‘visiting’ other churches online, whether these were city cathedrals and megachurches overseas, or small gatherings in a paddock in rural Australia.
To test these ideas of disruption we asked church attenders this question in the 2021 National Church Life Survey: “Compared to 2019 (before COVID), are you more or less involved at this local church?” Six in 10 church attenders reported that they have not changed their level of involvement with their church. The remaining 4 in 10 have changed their engagement, but not all in the same direction: two in 10 are more involved post-COVID, while two in 10 are less involved.
Another new question in the 2021 NCLS was, “Do you attend church services elsewhere?” (People could select both in person and/or online). The answers reveal that around six in 10 attenders only attend one church. However, four in 10 say they also attend elsewhere, whether in person (26%) or online (17%).
These results vary significantly by denomination, with more that half of Catholics attending Mass at more than one place. However, around a quarter of Protestants also reported attending other churches (15% attending in person, and 15% online).
Rather than talking about who is in or out of church life, it may be more helpful to think in terms of those are part of a core group and those who are ‘orbiting’.
Firstly, there is a very stable core of attenders who have maintained their same level of involvement since COVID-19. ‘Smaller but strong’ might be the theme for this core. Around this core there is a fringe group ‘orbiting’ on the periphery. People who may fit this group are those who are changing their levels of involvement, or who are visiting other churches.
As churches navigate the next phase of a COVID-affected church life, these results highlight a strong core of regular attenders; the positive potential of some being more involved; as well as the opportunity to reconnect with some who have become less involved at church. Whether rates of online attendance change or remain, will need to be seen in the future.
This research findings in this article are part of a webinar presentation "Who's in the Pews?" The webinar also includes the latest demographics of Australian church attenders, in age, gender, education and ethnicity, from the 2021 National Church Life Survey. Available now for viewing.
2021 National Church Life Survey and 2021 Australian Community Survey by NCLS Research