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Survey of Protestant Pastors Shows Churches Resuming, with Precautions

Emily McFarlan Miller

Which churches have resumed gathering in person amid the coronavirus pandemic?

Mostly evangelical Protestant churches rather than mainline Protestant and, more often, those located in the South or Midwest, according to a new survey released last week by LifeWay Research, the research arm of the Southern Baptist Convention.

But even for those churches that have reopened, services likely don’t look like they did before COVID-19 upended everyday life in the United States.

“Resuming in-person worship services has not been reverting to worship as usual,” LifeWay Research Executive Director Scott McConnell said in a written statement.

By theological affiliation, 82 percent of pastors who identify as evangelical said their churches gathered in person for worship July 19, compared to 57 percent of pastors who identify as mainline.

Doctrinally, that shouldn’t make a difference, McConnell told Religion News Service. But many evangelicals also tend to be more politically conservative, and the split falls along political lines as the pandemic has become politicized.

And by region, 78 percent of pastors in the Midwest and 75 percent in the South said they met last week in person, compared to 61 percent in the West and 55 percent in the Northeast, according to the survey.

Those numbers dropped off last weekend in the West as California has closed churches and businesses amid a spike in COVID-19 cases across the state, McConnell noted. They’ve remained low in the Northeast, which was hit hard by the pandemic early on and continues to take precautions “very seriously, even though they’re eager to get back to worship as well,” he said.

“I think that fairly well follows just the flow of how this pandemic has gone in the United States, but, given the flare-ups in some places, the churches that reopened have been following in many cases some rigid standards, but, at the same time, is that enough? Those questions I think will increasingly be asked,” McConnell added.

Overall, 71 percent of all Protestant churches met in person for services July 19 and 73 percent the weekend before, according to the LifeWay data.

Those numbers are much higher now than they were during previous LifeWay surveys in April (between 4 percent and 7 percent) and May (climbing from 15 percent to 42 percent over the course of the month), when many states had issued strict guidance for large group gatherings to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

LifeWay’s numbers are higher than a similar survey by Barna Group.

Barna found 49 percent of church leaders surveyed during the week of July 9 to 14 said they were meeting in their buildings.

LifeWay noted virtually every church meeting indoors (99 percent) was taking some kind of precautions to keep from spreading the coronavirus. That includes providing hand sanitizer, face masks or gloves (94 percent); conducting additional cleaning of surfaces (86 percent); closing seats to maintain distance between congregants (76 percent); recommending people wear face masks (59 percent); and requiring masks (35 percent).

But even as Sunday services resume, most churches are not hosting other activities in person, including children’s ministries (13 percent whose children’s ministries are active), student ministries (23 percent) and adult Bible studies (29 percent), according to the LifeWay survey.

LifeWay surveyed 443 Protestant pastors online between July 20 and 22. The survey’s margin of error is plus or minus 5 percent at 95 percent confidence, according to its methodology.

The survey also details other ways the pandemic has impacted churches, such as those with members who have lost jobs (48 percent) and those with members who have been diagnosed with the coronavirus (28 percent).

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Emily McFarlan Miller
Emily McFarlan Miller

Emily McFarlan Miller is a national reporter for RNS based in Chicago. She covers evangelical and mainline Protestant Christianity.

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