A religious leader greets parishioners arriving for Easter worship in Florida. In order to observe social distancing guidelines, members of the congregation met in the parking lot and watched a Facebook Live streaming of the service taking place inside the church. (Joe Raedle via Getty Images)
A religious leader greets parishioners arriving for Easter worship in Florida. In order to observe social distancing guidelines, members of the congregation met in the parking lot and watched a Facebook Live streaming of the service taking place inside the church. (Joe Raedle via Getty Images)

The COVID-19 pandemic, which has transformed virtually every aspect of public life in America, also has touched a very intimate part of Americans’ lives: their religious faith and worship habits.

Some Americans say their religious faith has strengthened as a result of the outbreak, even as the vast majority of U.S. churchgoers report that their congregations have closed regular worship services to the public, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. Americans in historically black Protestant churches and those who describe themselves as very religious are particularly likely to say their faith has strengthened.

One-quarter of U.S. adults overall (24%) say their faith has become stronger because of the coronavirus pandemic, while just 2% say their faith has become weaker. The majority say their faith hasn’t changed much (47%) or that the question isn’t applicable because they were not religious to begin with (26%).

Americans far more likely to say coronavirus crisis has strengthened their faith, rather than weakened it

To find out how U.S. adults’ religious faith may be changing and how houses of worship are adapting amid the coronavirus outbreak, we surveyed 10,139 U.S. adults from April 20 to 26, 2020, the most recent survey in the Center’s nearly yearlong Election News Pathways project.

All respondents to the survey are part of Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel (ATP), an online survey panel that is recruited through national, random sampling of residential addresses. This way nearly all U.S. adults have a chance of selection. The survey is weighted to be representative of the U.S. adult population by gender, race, ethnicity, partisan affiliation, education and other categories. For more, see the ATP’s methodology.

Here are the questions used for this report, along with responses, and its methodology.

Opinions on this question vary based on respondents’ religious affiliation and how religious they are. Christians are more likely than other religious groups in this analysis to say their faith has grown stronger as a result of the pandemic, a feeling that is reported by 56% of Protestants in the historically black tradition, as well as by four-in-ten evangelicals (42%) and roughly one-quarter of Catholics (27%) and mainline Protestants (22%).

Jews, on the other hand, are more likely to say their faith hasn’t changed much (69%) or that the question isn’t applicable to them because they are not religious (22%) than they are to say their faith has grown stronger during the outbreak (7%). Among the religiously unaffiliated – those who say their religion is atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – roughly a quarter say their faith hasn’t changed much (26%), while the majority say they were not religious to begin with (65%).

The most religious Americans – those who frequently pray and attend services (at least in typical times), and who rate religion as very important to them – are far more likely than others to say their faith has grown stronger as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. In other words, the self-reported strengthening of religious faith has been most pronounced within a segment of the public that was already quite religious to begin with.

For example, 46% of U.S. adults who said last year that they attend religious services at least once or twice a month say their faith has strengthened, compared with one-quarter (26%) of those who attend services just a few times a year and 11% of those who seldom or never attend. But even among people who are not very religious, very few say their faith has weakened. Rather, most say that their level of faith hasn’t changed much or that the question isn’t applicable to them because they don’t consider themselves to be religious.

There also are differences on this question by race and ethnicity, gender and age. Larger shares of black Americans than whites or Hispanics say their faith has grown stronger as a result of the coronavirus outbreak; women and older adults are more likely to say this than men and younger adults. (To analyze these questions further, visit the Election News Pathways data tool.)

Black Americans more likely than whites and Hispanics to say their faith is stronger because of pandemic

Majorities of church attenders say their congregation has closed its doors to the public and put its services online

Very few churchgoers say their congregation is allowing in-person gatheringsIt remains to be seen whether the strengthened faith that some Americans are experiencing will translate into greater service attendance, since most houses of worship are closed due to nationwide social distancing recommendations. Indeed, among U.S. adults who say they typically attend religious services at least once or twice a month, just 3% say their congregation is still holding in-person services. The vast majority (91%) say their congregation has closed its religious services to the public, and 5% say they do not know what their congregation has done.

If one looks not just at regular attenders but at all U.S. adults, still only 3% say people are still gathering in person for religious services at their congregation or the place of worship where they go most often. Roughly half say their house of worship has closed its religious services to the public, and 45% say they don’t attend services or don’t know what their house of worship has done.

Vast majorities of churchgoing Christians, those who attend worship services at least once a month, report that their congregation has been closed, including nine-in-ten or more among evangelical Protestants (92%), Catholics (94%) and mainline Protestants (96%). A somewhat smaller majority of those in the historically black Protestant tradition say their church has closed due to the outbreak (79%).

Very few adherents of any Christian tradition say that people are still gathering in person at their houses of worship. This ranges from 1% of Catholics to 7% of Protestants who belong to historically black churches. Although they are included in the full sample, non-Christian religious groups are not analyzed separately due to sample size limitations.

Americans who worship regularly say their services have moved onlineCongregants may not be physically sitting in the pews each Sunday, but their house of worship is most likely streaming or recording its services so that people can access them virtually. Among U.S. adults who report attending religious services at least monthly, 82% say that the place of worship they most often attend is streaming or recording its services so that people can watch them online or on TV. About one-in-eight (12%) say their primary place of worship has not done this, while the remainder say they don’t know (5%).

More than eight-in-ten churchgoing Christians say their primary church offers streaming or recorded services online or on TV, including roughly nine-in-ten evangelical (92%) and mainline Protestants (86%) who say this. Most Catholics (79%) and Protestants in the historically black tradition (73%) also say their churches are making
religious services available remotely.

A Pew Research Center survey conducted last month found that 57% of adults who attend religious services at least monthly said they have watched religious services online or on TV because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Note: Here are the questions used for this report, along with responses, and its methodology.

Claire Gecewicz  is a research associate focusing on religion research at Pew Research Center.