How to do church and practice our faith in the age of the COVID-19 quarantine? It has been a major question and dilemma for many of us, exacerbated by Holy Week and our deep desire to worship and celebrate these important days in person with the body of Christ. How has all of this actually impacted faith practice and our closeness to God?

The American Enterprise Institute, a leading think tank in Washington DC, conducted a new poll on various opinions, attitudes and behaviors of Americans regarding the coronavirus crisis. They included questions about faith participation and belief, and report some very interesting responses involving good news as well as not so good.

Church Closures

Only 12 percent of Americans say their church, synagogue, mosque, or temple is still holding in-person services. Most Americans, including Christians, Jews and Muslims, believe that houses of worship should not be exempt from local governmental rules for businesses closures in general. Only 28% of evangelicals believe churches should be able to remain open while 19% of mainline Protestants believe this. Black Protestants believe this at only 27% while only 25% of Catholics do. Interestingly, those who belong to non-Christian religions are most likely (34%) to believe places of worship should be able to remain open if they choose. 

Most Services Have Gone Online

Fifty-seven percent of Americans say their church is now online while 30% say their place of worship is not holding any services. For those who are offered online services, only 28% of congregants are making use of them. Like most measures of faith participation, the faith tradition you identify with makes a significant difference. A slight majority (53%) of evangelicals are “attending” online church or watching a sermon online or on television. The numbers are much lower for other faith traditions.

  • Only 36% of Black Protestants are participating in online services.
  • 34% of Catholics are.
  • 23% of mainline Protestants are.
  • 25% of those in non-Christian faiths are.

These numbers­­­ are similar to findings I present in my latest book The Myth of the Dying Church, showing that evangelicals show far more committed faith participation compared to all other traditions. Interestingly, younger and older Christians are logging onto online services at largely the same numbers.

Given these relatively low numbers, it would be interesting to see what congregants feel about online, virtual church. Are they participating in lower numbers because they feel watching church is not really church? Do they believe that if they can’t actually participate physically with other believers, share that experience with others personally, it’s not really worth doing? How many families are simply filling the gap through having Sunday worship and scripture teaching on their own? Hopefully many are. It is likely that evangelicals are leaders in such behavior, as they tend to lead all other faith traditions in practice and belief.

Prayer About the Crisis is Low

Remarkably, only 51 percent of all Americans say they’ve prayed in some way about the global coronavirus crisis in the past week. Again, the findings on this question are remarkably different according to faith tradition. The overwhelming majority of evangelicals (86%) say they have prayed about the crisis in the last seven days. Seventy-one percent of Black Protestants have while only 56% of both Catholics and mainline Protestants have. While each of these are majorities, one would think such a serious global health and economic pandemic would illicit far more prayer, even among those who report no real faith in normal times.

Closer to God

Has this crisis helped Americans feel closer to God? This question yielded some very interesting and diverse responses. For evangelicals, 54% said they have felt closer to God during this trying time. Black Protestants were similar at 53%. Thirty-seven percent of Catholics said they felt closer to God and only 23% of mainliners did. Of those claiming no faith, 14% reported feeling closer to God over the past few weeks.

An Act of God?

Only 25% of Americans believe the coronavirus outbreak is an act of God. Forty-two percent of Black Protestants say they believe it is while 33% of evangelicals do. Catholics and mainline Protestants are much less likely to believe this at 25% and 20% respectively. A possible difficulty with this question could be how we each define the term “act of God.” Does it mark a theological conviction or merely a manner of speech? We can refer to natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornados and wildfires as “acts of God” even when we are not meaning divine intention. Some insurance companies do this. They use this term simply to mean these events were not caused by the hand of man. Others can indeed mean that God orchestrated the crisis for reasons of judgment. This poll was not clear on this point.

Feeling Increased Loneliness

Apart from faith specifically, responses to the question of whether people have felt lonelier and isolated during this crisis are encouraging. Only 53% of Americans report having felt lonely or isolated in the past week. This is surprising in this time of radical social distancing. Just over a third say they have felt this way more than once in the last seven days. Curiously, this breaks down distinctly by age.

For the generation that we all assume live their lives and find their social interactions online, one would think there would be little change in feelings of loneliness among young adults. But this is not the case. Forty-eight percent of them report feeling lonely and isolated once or twice in the past week while only 20% of those 65 and older said they felt this way. Twenty percent of young adults said they have felt this way nearly every day while only 7% of the elderly have. Sixty-one percent of seniors say they have never felt lonely or isolated in the past week, while only 31% of young adults have never felt this.

In terms of reaching out to friends and loved ones who we’ve not been in contact with for some time, 47% of Americans say they have done so. This is a very positive sign at a time when social distancing is the call to arms. Apparently, we are finding creative ways to stay in touch and keep our sense of isolation and loneliness low.

 A major question in all of this is how these responses will change in the coming weeks. Will we soon be getting back to normal life, able to go back our normal work and school routines, re-opening and patronizing local businesses and reconnecting with those we used to see every day? Or will all this drag on, creating untold difficult experiences that none of us have ever experienced? We should hope for the best but prepare for more bad news. That is just wise.

Growing closer to God as well as to friends and loved ones, whether they are physically present or not, will certainly help all of us through these times.