Recently, Pew Research Center published data on worshippers in the United States. Here are the basic findings along with selected comments by respondents on participation by Americans in Worship:
Why some Americans prefer in-person religious services.
Some 17% of U.S. adults regularly attend religious services in person and watch them online or on TV, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. Roughly three-quarters of this group – making up 13% of all U.S. adults – say they prefer attending in person, while 2% prefer viewing services virtually and 2% have no preference.
Among those who prefer in-person religious services, the most common reason respondents give is a stronger sense of connection and community with fellow participants. About half (52%) say this – more than three times the share who name any other reason.
Another 8% of these respondents cite the quality of the worship practices at in-person services, saying that things like communion and singing can’t be replicated online:
“As a Catholic, you cannot receive communion at home.”
“For over 60 years I have been a church musician (organist/pianist) so congregational singing is very meaningful to me. Also, I think it is important to see, talk to and encourage my fellow believers.”
“I enjoy taking part in the service; i.e., singing hymns, taking communion and seeing other church members in person.”
I found some of this information surprizing. For instance, the number of respondents who attend worship services regularly is only 17%. This seems surprizingly low to me as I was under the impression that the United States was an exception to the rule for countries in the Western World that attendance in worship was in sharp decline. If these results are to be believed – and I don’t have any reason not to believe them - this is also the case in the United States.
Checking these results on the internet (which of course could be wrong) another source stated that 27% attend worship more than once a month. This is the generally accepted criteria for regular church attendance. So perhaps the decline is not as great as the Pew Research would indicate. However, the same source noted that pre-pandemic in 2018, the number of people who attended regularly was 42%. We might conclude from this that the reason for this decline is the pandemic in which attendance in worship was restricted and discouraged.
In comparison, data from Stats Canada reports that in the last available data 2018, 23% of Canadians attend church services at least once a month. So, Americans still are outperforming Canadians on that front. I couldn’t find any post-pandemic stats for Canada. But if the Canadian trend follows the American it will probably show a significant drop as well. This raises significant questions for the future of church – or at least church attendance in both countries.
Much of worship was done through social media during the pandemic. There has been lots of speculation about this being the future of worship. However, speaking from experience, it has severe limitations as a worship experience. I found some of the results of the Pew Research data to be revealing on this front. The connection to the community expressed in the Pew results (52%) are not surprizing. Community has been a strong pull to worship throughout the history of people worshiping.
The importance of music is also not surprizing to me as a lifelong member of church choirs and one of the factors that I have found important to my experience of worshipping God. One thing that I find interesting is that the quality of preaching did not appear on the Pew results. It might fall under the general response of the quality of the worship (8%). This is hardly encouraging to those of us who believe that the proclamation of the word is central to worship.
There is much to consider in this information for people contemplating the future of worship. Will the on-going decline in how we worship continue unabated? Will on-line worship be an attractive alternative in the future? If so, what does the church writ- large need to do to make it successful. The present attempt by many congregations to put the present form of worship on-line has been rather unsuccessful in my humble view. IF we are going to do this there needs to be a major rethinking of how platforms such as Zoom and YouTube can be used successfully for worship. What production facilities and skills are required and what form should the worship take. For Anglicans and Catholics and other Eucharistically based denominations, how do we do this on social media i.e., what are the implications theologically possible or appropriate for worshippers attending through social media e.g. is an exclusively on-line congregation truly a worshipping community?
Perhaps there needs to be a complete rethinking of what it means to worship and how we worship. One of the important factors in worship for me is the experience of the divine. I believe that this is central to many people and is reflected in the sense of community and in such things as music and the Eucharist and yes and even the preaching. Unfortunately, it seems to me that many people, especially in mainline Protestant churches, don’t have an experience of God that they can identify as such.
Those are my thoughts and musings on this for today. May you be blessed to have the experience of the divine, however it manifests itself, on your journey.