Today is the last Sunday of 2020. The disruption to employment and rise of remote work might be the bigger story of 2020. However, for a significant fraction of Americans, 2020 is also the year their ability to meet as an in-person church was curtailed. Gathering in a room with many people singing is an efficient means of spreading the virus. For some, church has been an online-only experience since March.
Social scientists are interested in religiosity. Christian devotion has often been measured by asking how many times a person goes to church.
My colleagues who study the economics of religion will have an important issue to study. How does the switch to online church in 2020 affect Christian engagement in the future? How will this affect our ability to track long-term trends on religiosity?
If it is true that large gatherings are safe in a year from now, it will be interesting to compare in-person church attendance in 2022 to 2019. If it turns out that attendance has decreased, then we would need to see a break in the trend to conclude that Covid is the cause. Here’s a graph of church attendance in an article from B.C. (Before Covid).
A book that was published in the 1950s made it sound like, even then, people who attended church weekly were in the minority. Joy Davidman published Smoke on the Mountain in 1953.
The inspiration for this post was reading this line about “remote” church experiences:
Others, instead of stirring their stumps, listen in comfortable living rooms to a sermon on the radio, arguing that it is “just the same.” They have forgotten that one of the first necessities of a Christian life is a congregation…
Overall, Davidman is disappointed in how few of her American countrymen attend church. Early in life, she was a militant atheist. She’s a Christian at the time of writing, but still somewhat militant.
Davidman frowns on radio church, when in-person church was available. However, virtual church today is closer to the traditional visual church experience. Going forward, it will be important to consider whether people who use the internet for church experiences should get counted.
Here are some examples of what churches have been up to, virtually:
Trinity United Methodist Church in Birmingham, AL
Truro Anglican Church in Fairfax, VA
Nativity, a Catholic church in Burke, VA
Larger churches have been podcasting and Youtube-ing for years. One of the top productions is Bethel Church of Redding, CA. They even already had their own Bethel.tv ecosystem, so shutting down in-person services for Covid probably coincided with an increase in viewership for them.