Australians return to church after pandemic

In encouraging news, new research shows that attendance at religious services has recovered to pre-pandemic levels.

The Australian Community Survey (ACS) conducted by NCLS Research recently showed that in 2021 the level of regular religious service attendance was 21 per cent. (The survey includes other faiths but the majority are Christian churches.)

The rise in attendance comes after a slump in 2020, arguably the most arduous year of the pandemic, when only 16 per cent of Australians frequently attended a religious service.

“That is, one in five Australians attended religious services frequently, at least once a month, last year,” NCLS Research’s Director Dr Ruth Powell said.

“This is similar to levels recorded before the emergence of the virus in 2019 (22 per cent). This suggests attendance at Christian churches, or other religious services, has not suffered any long-term impacts from the global pandemic.”

After watching church attendance plummet for decades, NCLS Research noted a leveling off a few years ago.

“We finally were brave enough to say we think it’s plateauing and that was quite exciting, so I’ve been watching it pop up to 20 per cent, 22 per cent – that was the 2019 figure – and then to see it slump in 2020 was not surprising and we didn’t know how bad it would be. So that makes it really quite interesting though that it’s popped back up,” she tells Eternity.

“If you’re not seeing as many people at your church it’s because they’re going somewhere else – they haven’t been lost altogether.” – Ruth Powell

Certainly, she said, there had been a disruption in attendance patterns, with people trying different churches and trying online services.

“That has definitely happened, but the hope in this particular news is that if you’re concerned that you’ve lost people at your local church or you don’t know where they are, the message is, nationally, there are the same number of people still attending a religious service somewhere. So it’s like we’ve stabilised, and if you’re not seeing as many people at your church it’s because they’re going somewhere else – they haven’t been lost altogether – and that hopefully is a source of encouragement.”

The survey of 1300 Australians last November showed that among those who attended religious services in 2021, 13 per cent went weekly or more often. But many churches have adapted to the “new normal”. Around 18 per cent of Australians attended online religious services in 2020 and 2021. A further 6-7 per cent attended weddings, baptisms and funerals online.

“As churches look forward in light of COVID-19, many will be exploring new ways to connect,” Dr Powell said.

“At this stage, some 16 per cent of Australians affirm their willingness to use a digital online platform, such as Zoom, to discuss questions of Christian faith.”

NCLS Research’s Australian Community Survey is an adjunct to the largest and longest-running survey of local churches in the world. The National Church Life Survey has been used to track the life of the Australian church and its attenders for more than 30 years. This year, the survey period has been extended to the end of March due to restrictions caused by COVID-19.