How the Pandemic Has Affected Attendance at U.S. Religious Services

WASHINGTON, D.C. (March 28, 2023) – Pew Research Center has conducted five surveys since the summer of 2020 in which we asked U.S. adults whether they attended religious services in person in the prior month and, separately, whether they took part virtually (by streaming online or watching on TV). Our analysis of these surveys finds that there are some indications that in-person engagement in religious services has declined slightly since 2019, before the COVID-19 outbreak. The share of all U.S. adults who say they typically attend religious services at least once a month is down modestly but measurably (by 3 percentage points, from 33% to 30%) over that span, and one-in-five Americans say they now attend in person less often than they did before the pandemic.

At the same time, the share of U.S. adults who take part in religious services in some way (in person, virtually or both) in a given month has remained remarkably steady since the early days of the pandemic – even though how they participate has shifted dramatically.

In July 2020 – when many churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship were limiting attendance or closed to physical worshippers – 41% of adults said they had joined in religious services in one of these ways (either in person or virtually) in the past month. Most of them (27% of all U.S. adults) said they had participated only virtually. An additional 9% said they had attended in person and watched virtually. Just 4% said they had gone to church or other religious services only in person in the month prior to the July 2020 survey.

Since then, the total share of U.S. adults participating in religious services has barely budged, hovering around four-in-ten. But as the pandemic has run its course and many religious congregations have reopened their doors to worshippers, the percentage of Americans participating virtually in worship services has been dropping. Meanwhile, in-person attendance quickly rebounded and then appears to have plateaued. In the most recent survey asking these questions, in November 2022, 12% say they participated only virtually in the past month (down from 27% in the first year of the pandemic), while 16% say they attended only in person (up from 4% in 2020). An additional 12% say they did both.

Key takeaways from the new report

To assess the impact of the pandemic on worship attendance rates, the report looks at Pew Research Center’s survey data in four different ways:

• Five surveys conducted since the start of the pandemic (beginning with a survey in July 2020) show that a remarkably steady share of Americans – about 40% – say they have participated in religious services in the prior month one way or the other (either in person or virtually, i.e., by streaming online or watching on TV).

• Asked directly whether they now attend religious services more or less often than they did before the pandemic, more Americans indicate that their attendance habits have declined than risen. But it’s a complicated picture: As of November 2022, 20% say they are attending in person less often (while 7% say they are going in person more often). On the other hand, 15% say they are participating in services virtually more often (while 5% say they are watching services online or on TV less often).

• The share of U.S. adults who say they generally attend religious services once a month or more has dropped slightly, from 33% in 2019 to 30% in 2022. 

• A longitudinal analysis of the survey data – tracking the same individuals’ answers on four annual surveys from 2019 to 2022 – finds that the vast majority (87%) report no change in their rates of worship attendance over that period. But among those who do indicate a change, more report attending services less often (8%) than report attending more often (4%).

Overall, 28% of U.S. adults now say they attended religious services in person in the last month, virtually unchanged from the last time we asked this question in March 2022 (27%) and only slightly higher than in September 2021 (26%). Those surveys indicated a significant rise of in-person attendance from March 2021 (17%) and July 2020 (13%). By contrast, the share of Americans who say they watched religious services online or on TV in the last month dropped in the new survey, from 30% in March 2022 to 24% in November.

Throughout the pandemic, White evangelical Protestants consistently have been the most likely of the country’s major religious groups to attend services in person. The portion of White evangelicals who report that they physically went to church in the past month has not dropped below 30% at any point since July 2020. In the most recent survey, fully half of White evangelicals (52%) say they attended in person.

Black Protestants have experienced a substantial bounce in physical attendance, from a low of 14% in July 2020 to 41% in the recent survey. But Black Americans also have suffered a disproportionately high share of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths relative to White Americans, and Black Protestants remain the U.S. religious group most likely to be viewing services virtually. In the most recent survey, about half of Black Protestants (54%) say they participated in services online or on TV in the last month, compared with 46% of White evangelical Protestants and smaller shares of Catholics (20%), White non-evangelical Protestants (19%) and Jews (16%). (This report cannot analyze the attendance patterns of Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and other smaller non-Christian religious groups due to sample size limitations.)

When it comes to party affiliation, Republicans and Republican-leaning independents have been much more likely than Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents to attend religious services in person – as well as somewhat more likely to participate virtually – throughout the pandemic.

Older Americans tend to be more religious than young adults, and despite being at greater risk of hospitalization and death from COVID-19, Americans ages 65 and older have generally been somewhat more inclined than young adults (ages 18 to 29) to go to religious services in person. Older Americans also report participating in religious services virtually at higher rates than the youngest adults.

The most recent survey, about half of adults 65 and older say they attended services in the past month, including a third who went either only in person (18%) or both in person and virtually (15%). That compares with roughly three-in-ten adults under 30 who say they participated in religious services in any way, including about one-fifth who went either only in person (12%) or both in person and virtually (9%).

Throughout most of the pandemic, about six-in-ten Americans have not taken part in religious services in any way. In the new survey, this includes roughly seven-in-ten adults under 30 (72%) and about nine-in-ten religiously unaffiliated adults (those who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular”).

These are among the key findings of a new analysis of Americans’ religious attendance, based on a Pew Research Center survey conducted Nov. 16-27, 2022, on the nationally representative American Trends Panel, as well as several older surveys. For the November 2022 survey, a total of 11,377 panelists responded out of 12,402 who were sampled, for a response rate of 92%. The margin of sampling error for the full sample of 11,377 respondents is plus or minus 1.5 percentage points.

To read the report, click here: pewresearch.org/religion/2023/03/28/how-the-pandemic-has-affected-attendance-at-u-s-religious-services

Methodology: pewresearch.org/religion/2023/03/28/pandemic-religious-attendance-methodology

Survey topline: pewresearch.org/religion/wp-content/uploads/sites/7/2023/03/PF_2023.03.28_pandemic-religion-attendance_TOPLINE.pdf

For more information about the study or to arrange an interview with the lead researchers, please contact Anna Schiller at aschiller@pewresearch.org or +1-202-419-4514.

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