With the rise in online church services, many have different opinions on the acceptability or validity of online church attendance for those with the ability to attend in person, a new study shows.
Lifeway Research finds pastors and churchgoers split over the question. But other research projects may provide more clarity on tangible benefits that come exclusively from physical attendance.
During the pandemic, a shift happened among Americans in general and particularly among Americans with evangelical beliefs in reference to attending church, according to the State of Theology study. In early 2020, 58% of Americans said worshipping alone or with one’s family is a valid replacement for regularly attending church. By 2022, that number jumped to 66%. Among Americans with evangelical beliefs, the percentage increased from 39% in 2020 to 54% in 2022.
With these shifts, how likely are pastors and churchgoers to consider online attendance as an equal basis for measuring who qualifies as a regular churchgoer?
Most pastors say attending the worship service is necessary to be considered a regular churchgoer. But they’re split over whether attendance must be in person or if online is an equally valid option.
A Lifeway Research study found most U.S. Protestant pastors (61%) use worship service attendance as the basis for considering someone a regular churchgoer, while 33% say any church activity will do. They’re more evenly divided over whether attendance must be in person or can include online worshippers.
Around 46% set the standard for a regular churchgoer on in-person attendance of some kind (37% say church services and 9% say any church activity). Another 48% say online attendance qualifies someone, with 24% saying only a worship service and 24% including any church activity.
Younger pastors, those 18 to 44, are among the most likely to say a regular churchgoer is directly tied to in-person church service attendance (42%). They’re also among the least likely to say attending services in person or online both qualify (17%).
Hispanic (40%) and white pastors (38%) are more likely than African American pastors (17%) to say a regular churchgoer is determined by how often someone attends church services in person.
Pastors in the Midwest (44%) are more likely than those in the South (36%) or Northeast (33%) to point exclusively to attending services in person.
Evangelical pastors (45%) are close to twice as likely as mainline pastors (25%) to say a regular churchgoer is tied to how often an individual attends church services in person.
Denominationally, non-denominational pastors (53%), Baptists (47%), and Lutherans (44%) are among the most likely to say being a regular churchgoer is based on attending church services in person. Methodists (39%), Presbyterian/Reformed (38%), and Restorationist Movement pastors (35%) are among the most likely to include attending any church activity in person or online.
Among at least monthly churchgoers themselves, 57% say attendance at church service should count as the basis. And 34% include any church activity. Again, they’re more evenly split over the inclusion of online attendance.
Around 43% say a regular churchgoer is someone who attends in person, 29% tying it exclusively to worship service attendance and 14% to any church activity. For 48%, online attendance should count, including 28% who include only church service and 20% who say any church activity.
Denominationally, Baptists (35%) are among the most likely to base the standard on how often a person attends church services in person. Methodists (44%) are among the most likely to say it’s based on how often a person attends services in person or online.
Churchgoers with evangelical beliefs are more likely than those without such beliefs (33% v. 26%) to say regular attendance is based on attending church services in person.
Regardless of one’s theological position on “online church,” recent studies have found the physical benefits often connected to church attendance are, at the very least, more closely connected to in-person attendance.
One study of American and Israeli smartphone users during the pandemic published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion found positive effects of digital spirituality. It wasn’t enough to simply use a smartphone during the pandemic. But “smartphone use that satisfied religious or spiritual needs generated favorable outcomes.”
A study published in the Sociology of Religion journal, however, found in-person religious service attendance had benefits unmatched by virtual attendance. Researchers found that “while in-person religious attendance was associated with better mental and physical health, virtual attendance was not significantly related to either outcome,” according to a summary published at Religion Watch of the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion.
The study found that as people increased their in-person attendance during the pandemic, they experienced lower levels of psychological distress and better self-rated health. The authors argued that in-person attendance could promote improved health through social support and a sense of connection in congregational worship. In-person churchgoers could also “leave religious services feeling a greater sense of emotional energy drawn from active participation in religious rituals.”
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EDITOR’S NOTE — This story was written by Aaron Earls and originally published by Lifeway Research.