Will the Pandemic Kill Church Attendance? (And Does It Matter?)

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A recent poll confirmed for me something that I have been suspecting: Many people who stopped going to church during the pandemic probably won’t return.

In a new survey of Catholics, ages 18-35, by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate – which is associated with Georgetown University and commonly known as CARA – found that “36 percent of respondents plan to attend Mass less frequently when stay-at-home orders related to the Covid-19 pandemic end and churches fully open,” according to America Magazine.

The data apply only to young Catholics, but I would bet they can be applied to most young churchgoers, whatever their denomination. Given that the years-long decline in church attendance among young people is well documented and well-known, these new data may not be surprising.

And though the rate of decline in church attendance may be lower among older people, I would guess that a proportional decline applies to them.

More Prayer at Home

The survey showed that for 28 percent of respondents, however, “prayer at home has increased during the pandemic.” And “more say the pandemic has strengthened their faith than weakened it.”

In my opinion, that’s good news. But the overall picture says to me that the trend toward “do-it-yourself” religion continues, as well as the disconnect between faith and religious practice. And to me, that’s bad news, for individuals and for society.

Because of a steep drop in attendance that started long before the pandemic, many churches are struggling financially and in other ways. Many may be forced to close.

Any objective view of history will show that overall, religion has been a positive force in society. In fact, my view is that people who have rejected the faith in which they grew up are positively influenced by it even when they fail to acknowledge it.

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To many, “going to church” seems hopelessly anachronistic. Many view it as boring and useless, ignoring its benefits for individuals and for society. And many have a “Jesus and me” view of faith, seeing it as totally personal. Others reject religious affiliation because genuine religion makes demands on us.

So what are the benefits of belonging to a religion and actually going to church?

To stick with the do-it-yourself analogy, the go-it-alone religious person has barriers that are similar to those of doing a home project yourself compared to hiring a professional. The do-it-yourselfer seldom has the know-how or the tools to do the job right.

That’s especially true of Christianity, which is not a go-it-alone religion. It’s a “we-and-God” deal. The Hebrew and Christian Bibles make that clear.

Participating in regular religious services helps avoid self-delusion and self-centeredness, which are serious obstacles to the spiritual life. When you go to church, you are forced to relate to people of many stripes, uniting with people who, like you, are struggling with what matters most in life.

Challenges Us

Religious practice is a communal anchor. It tests our spirituality against time-honored criteria and though many “religious” people try to ignore it, religion challenges us to “walk the walk,” and shows us how to do it. It’s one thing to be spiritual, another to live our spiritual lives in service to others.

Besides, religion unites us with generations of people – our own immediate ancestors as well as people in the distant past – who, despite flaws that are embarrassingly like ours today – recognized the presence of God in the world and committed to him/her.

Religious services have a hard time competing with modern communication marvels, but people who have committed to regularly “going to church” know church-going is not in the category of “entertainment.” It takes some effort to stay focused, but people sincerely searching for God know it’s worth it.