Against the Stream: Virtual Church Attendance Falls Short of Expectations April 9, 2020

Against the Stream: Virtual Church Attendance Falls Short of Expectations

According to Google (the closest thing to an omniscient being that actually exists), web users around the globe have increasingly been using search terms like “prayer,” “God,” “Bible,” and “Allah” over the last five weeks.

[T]he rise began early in [March], but did not begin to climb dramatically until the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic on March 11.

Religion is always a convenient crutch, a provider of baseless solace to the anxious, the bereaved, the gullible, and the exploitable. No surprise there.

One caveat from a Danish researcher, Jeanet Sinding Bentzen, who wrote a report on the topic:

“COVID-19 resulted in temporary church closures, to limit infection rates. Thus, part of the intensified searches for prayer may cover a move from prayer in the public to prayer in the private.”

In other words, the Google data don’t necessarily show that more people are developing religious leanings. Many are existing religionists who have taken to self-providing biblical / Quranic messages in the absence of clergy telling them exactly what to read or listen to.

Now, in addition, new poll numbers gathered by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) reveal two noteworthy things about how people have been practicing their religion in the time of COVID-19.

One: At the end of March, when the polling was done, 12 percent of churches in the United States were still providing regular services despite social-distancing directives (by my calculation that’s 38,000 churches — more here).

Two: Live-streaming church services is pretty much a bust.

AEI’s pollsters asked COVID-related questions of 2,560 U.S. adults between March 26-30, and found that

Even though many places of worship are offering remote services, relatively few Americans report participating in them online. Less than one-third (28 percent) of Americans say they have participated in an online worship service or watched a sermon online.

Patterns of online religious engagement vary significantly across religious traditions. More than half (53 percent) of white evangelical Protestants report that they attended a remote worship service or watched an online sermon. Considerably fewer black Protestants (36 percent), Catholics (34 percent), members of non-Christian religious traditions (25 percent), and white mainline Protestants (23 percent) report having participated in an online religious service.

Interviewed by the Washington ExaminerDaniel Cox, a research fellow at AEI, elucidated that

… many people reported that the feeling of community that comes with church is irreplaceable in an online settingSocial pressure to go to church, too, is harder to enforce when fellow congregants cannot see who is and who isn’t watching streamed services.

“Most of the research on social interaction and influence says that in-person interactions are more influential, meaningful, and memorable than those online,” Cox said. “This is likely true for worship as well.”

AEI’s polling data also reveal that

Less than one in four (23 percent) Americans say churches and places of worship should be allowed to hold services even if the government has banned other large gatherings. More than three-quarters (76 percent) of the public say they should not be exempt.

Note that those are Americans from all walks of life — faithists and secular folks alike. That already astounding one-in-four number is likely much higher among religious adherents.

On the other hand, it bears repeating that the poll was taken 10–14 days ago. Surely some of the Branch Covidians have reconsidered since then? A man can dream.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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