While lockdowns forced many churches to shut their doors during the COVID-19 pandemic last year, the trend of declining fellowship continues into 2021.
Lifeway Research revealed that in 2020, 59% of churchgoers in the United States indicated they participated in small groups while 41% did not. One year later, however, only 37% are participating in such discipleship – a 22-point plunge – and 63% are not.
The Nashville-based group discovered that even though churchgoers were less likely to fellowship in small groups during the pandemic, a significant number incorporated new digital and individual activities to their discipleship itineraries.
"COVID-19 appears to have had both positive and negative impacts on discipleship," Lifeway Research executive director Scott McConnell explained. "Pre-pandemic churchgoers largely have shown more resolve in following Christ over the following year while altering how they engage with other believers."
Before the pandemic hit, a significant proportion of various demographic groups in America fellowshipped in small groups.
"Young adults aged 18 to 29 are the most likely to say they were participants in a small group before COVID (68%), while churchgoers 65 and older are the most likely to say they didn't participate in groups at all (57%)," Lifeway reported. "African Americans (62%) are also more likely to say they were participants in a small group in January 2020 than white churchgoers (48%)."
However, due to drop-offs during the pandemic, there is less opportunity to serve within the church.
"[R]esearch has shown that Christians involved in in-person small group Bible studies and Sunday School classes are more likely to exemplify Christlike behaviors of serving those outside the church, sharing the gospel, volunteering within the church, giving and investing in spiritual disciplines," McConnell explained. "During the pandemic, far fewer churchgoers benefited from these Bible-focused, relational meetings, and only a portion took advantage of online options."
With the pandemic extending far beyond last summer, discipleship is becoming a greater concern for pastors.
To show the contrast between discipleship practices in 2019 and 2020, Lifeway examined ten areas (see graph below).
"In nine of these discipleship practices, a majority of churchgoers have participated in the last two years," McConnell explained. "In-person worship and Bible studies saw the greatest declines in frequency, while potential replacements for these saw the greatest increases in participation."
Minorities were found to be more involved in discipleship than Caucasians over the past two years. "African Americans and Hispanics were also more likely than white churchgoers in most categories to say their participation increased in 2020 compared to 2019," the researchers stated.
A previous Lifeway study revealed that the pandemic actually strengthened believers' relationships with God.
"Despite fewer churchgoers being involved in small groups in 2020 and many discipleship practices decreasing during the pandemic, more than nine in 10 say they grew closer to God through the events of 2020 (54%) or at least stayed about the same (39%)," Lifeway recounted from its March study.
It appears that challenging times due to the pandemic pushed believers to seek God with more intensity.
"Those who were churchgoers before COVID-19 say they are more in-tune with God because of the events of 2020," McConnell asserted. "This move reflects what Jesus called the greatest commandment – to love God. During the pandemic, the second-greatest command to love your neighbor has often been expressed through social distancing. It will be interesting to see what impact this greater love of God has on relationships with others as those activities restart."
Illustration above compliments of Lifeway Research.