Skip to main content

Polling by the Pew Research Center has found that the percentage of U.S. adults who identify as Christian has fallen 15 percentage points since 2007, to 63 per cent, mostly among Protestants.Gerald Herbert/The Associated Press

The pandemic has done nothing to dim the rock ‘n’ roll vibe inside one of America’s biggest churches, where Sunday morning at Flatirons Community Church brings fog machines and laser lights and chest-thumping bass lines. Lead pastor Jim Burgen still strides onto the stage in a tight black polo shirt and jeans, drawing laughs as he teases meaning in his sermons from NASA, a fitness regime and the Bible. Volunteers still dispense coffee, hot chocolate and bagels with cream cheese from a sprawling lobby whose wood-and-steel motif evokes a rodeo beer bar.

But the 4,000-seat main auditorium is no longer what it once was, mottled with empty patches that give glaring testament to a reality confronting churches across the United States: Long after the first pandemic lockdowns, many of the country’s faithful appear to have lost the faith.

Christianity has been a defining cultural feature of the U.S. since its inception. But COVID-19 has stripped away large numbers of people from the country’s places of worship amid a broader trend toward secularization. In the past two years, some smaller churches have sought government pandemic funds, cut staff and even put buildings up for sale. Bigger churches, with their Grammy-winning worship bands and television-calibre livestreams, have fared better.

Even so, at Flatirons, ranked the 11th-largest church in the U.S. by Outreach magazine, attendance is down 40 per cent over 2019, in a church that before the pandemic had grown at a rate of five to 10 per cent a year. Flatirons cut its staff in half last year and remains more than a third below its 2019 levels. Instead of four services per weekend, the cavernous main church – fashioned from a former Walmart and Albertsons grocery store – now meets just twice on Sunday.

Even then, the empty seats point to thousands of missing people. “We’re not really sure where those 5,000 people went,” said Jesse DeYoung, the executive lead pastor at Flatirons.

Church leaders now estimate that 20 to 30 per cent of the missing parishioners are unlikely to return to their places of worship. Some have opted for online church. Others have switched congregations. For others, the pandemic put an end to long-standing Sunday habits. They’ve “fallen away from church attendance and they’re not coming back,” Mr. DeYoung said.

The pandemic arrived at a time of momentous religious change in the U.S.

Polling by the Pew Research Center has found that the percentage of U.S. adults who identify as Christian has fallen 15 percentage points since 2007, to 63 per cent, mostly among Protestants. In that time, those who say they have “no religion” has almost doubled, to 29 per cent. In 2020, for the first time in eight decades of polling by Gallup, less than half of Americans belonged to places of worship, including churches, synagogues and mosques.

This week, the Institute for Family Studies, a religious research group, released a new analysis showing a six-percentage-point decline in regular religious attendance in the U.S., using data that compared 2021 with 2019. That suggests the pandemic ended churchgoing for 20 million people; 57 per cent of Americans now say they never or seldom attend church. (A Canadian survey last fall found 67 per cent of Canadians never attend church.)

Fear of the virus is only a partial explanation: While 83 per cent of churches said at least one of their members had contracted COVID-19, a study by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research found only 17 per cent counted a coronavirus death among their membership.

But the pandemic arrived at a time when the ferocity of political debate in the country had already alienated some people from the church – “CNN and Fox News are doing a better job discipling our people than we are,” Mr. DeYoung says. He sees people who, when they discover a contradiction between their political views and biblical teaching, conclude that “actually, Jesus is wrong.”

But the pandemic has brought more sudden change.

Nationwide, church attendance is down 9 per cent from 2019, according to surveys by Faith Communities Today, which count both online and in-person churchgoing. Almost a quarter of Christian congregations now fear for their continued existence, the polling found.

But 28 per cent reported excellent financial health, a seeming contradiction that illustrates a broader religious winnowing.

Take New Life Church in Colorado Springs, which also counts among the 100 biggest churches in the country. It has removed almost a third of the seats in its main auditorium. The church’s offering plates, however, have been little affected.

“The amount of dollars that I have to do ministry in the city actually increased in the last three years, every year,” said senior pastor Brady Boyd. “Because those who are committed got more committed. Those who were marginal became less involved.”

Lifeway Research, an evangelical research firm, has tracked a decline in church giving in 2020 but a rebound in 2021, with almost half of Protestant pastors now saying the current economy is not affecting their church – the highest number in 11 years of polling. At the same time, only 12 per cent of pastors said the economy is providing a boost to their churches, the lowest such number since 2012.

Tim Keller, a prominent Presbyterian pastor and intellectual, has described a waning of “Christian-y” culture in the country, as people who once described themselves as nominal Christians increasingly see themselves as being without religion. “Both secularism and devout faith are growing. What’s going away is the mushy middle of religiosity,” he observed in 2014. Religious leaders often talk of “post-Christian America.”

In Colorado, many churches closed for more than a month in 2020, after the state issued a stay-at-home order. For some believers, it was “a perfect excuse to go ahead and cut the ties with church,” Mr. Boyd said.

For the clergy, too, the pandemic has prompted re-evaluation. Thirty-eight per cent of pastors considered quitting last year, according to polling by Barna Group, a religious research firm.

In the pandemic, “everything got turned upside down. Like in every other industry, the last couple of years have been cataclysmic for the church,” Mr. Boyd said. While online viewership has quadrupled, the decreased in-person attendance is not far off the percentage of people who abandoned New Life immediately after its founder, Ted Haggard, was disgraced by revelations that he used methamphetamines and paid for sex with men.

Yet Mr. Boyd also believes the winnowing of the less faithful has “in some ways purified us.” While thousands fell away from Sunday services, New Life recorded a record number of baptisms last year – 551, double the numbers of previous years. For some churchgoers, the deadly rampage of the virus prompted what Mr. Boyd called “an awakening of people’s hunger for spiritual things.”

Some church leaders have also spotted opportunity. Until the beginning of this year, Flatirons had counted more pandemic-era funerals from teen suicides and drug overdoses than from COVID-19. The church recently raised almost US$4-million that it plans to spend on counselling and other services for young people.

The pandemic has also brought dividends to technologically sophisticated congregations. Flatirons already offered online church services when stay-at-home orders spread across the U.S. and soon discovered that people across the country were tuning in.

Now it’s working to create churches for those people to attend by leveraging its new online audience, Mr. DeYoung said.

“We want to see that spread across the country,” he said.

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.