Recently, many Americans found themselves in need as the COVID-19 pandemic caused significant loss of life, medical burdens and business closures. Most say local churches were helpful during this difficult season, but some didn’t see the aid congregations were offering.
Nashville-based Lifeway Research found 53% of Americans say churches in their community have been helpful during the coronavirus pandemic, with 27% saying congregations were very helpful. Few (7%) found local churches to be hurtful, but a sizable number say they were neither helpful nor hurtful (23%) or weren’t sure (16%).
“Many of the practical needs churches in America often meet have increased during the coronavirus pandemic. As a result, numerous churches have gone to great lengths to continue and even increase the help they provide,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research. “But with more people, including traditional churchgoers, staying home and interacting with others less, it has been harder to get the word out about the help churches are making available.”
Most Americans under 50 saw churches in their area as helpful during the pandemic, while those older saw less assistance. Those aged 18 to 34 (56%) and 35 to 49 (63%) are more likely than those 50 and older (46%) to say local churches have been helpful.
Among Americans who identify as Christians, those who attend worship services at least monthly (72%) are more likely than those who attend less frequently (42%) to say congregations in their community have been helpful.
Religiously unaffiliated Americans (12%) are twice as likely as Protestants (6%) to say churches have been hurtful. Hispanics (13%) are more than twice as likely as whites (6%) and African Americans (5%) to see local congregations as hurtful during the pandemic.
Areas of service
Most Americans (53%) say they heard of local churches or area Christians feeding the hungry in the past six months, but other common acts of service by churches go unnoticed by most.
Four in 10 are aware of churches clothing the poor (40%), while around 3 in 10 noticed Christians helping disaster victims (31%) and sheltering the homeless (28%).
Fewer say they’ve heard about churches supporting local schools (16%), providing aid for new mothers (16%), offering after-school programs (14%), meeting with people in prisons (13%), volunteering to provide foster care (12%) or tutoring school kids (11%).
Fewer than 1 in 10 Americans have noticed in the last six months churches and Christians teaching English to immigrants, teaching job skills (9%) or providing tax preparation (6%).
For 15% of American adults, they haven’t heard of local churches or their members doing any of those things in the last six months. Another 15% say they aren’t sure.
The percentage of Americans aware of the ways churches may be serving in their area has declined. From a 2016 Lifeway Research study to today, 10 of the 13 acts surveyed saw a significant decline in the percentage of Americans who say they heard about local congregations or their members serving in that way. Five years ago, Americans who were aware of any churches serving listed an average of 4.8 different ways. Today, that number has fallen to 3.6.
“Last fall, 8% of U.S. Protestant pastors said their church was forced to delete a ministry of their congregation due to COVID. More churches had to stop other areas of active service, at least for a season, because of health and safety guidelines,” said McConnell. “Prisons prohibited visitors, schools were closed, and many churches struggled to find safe ways to serve those they had in the past. As ministries have resumed, many churches are still ramping up what they offer as they do not yet have all the volunteers they once had.”
For most of the different areas of service, adults aged 35 to 49, Christians who regularly attend church services and Americans with evangelical beliefs are most likely to have noticed.
Those 50 and older (18%), residents of the Northeast (21%) and West (18%), Christians who attend worship services less than once a month (17%), and the religiously unaffiliated (25%) are the most likely to say they haven’t heard of churches or their members serving the community in any of the ways surveyed.
Food pantry experience
The increased visibility for food ministry above all the other acts of service may be because a third of Americans (33%) say their family has received food from a church-run food pantry in the past. Around 2 in 3 (65%) say no one in their family has received such help.
Even though fewer Americans say they heard of churches feeding the hungry in the last six months, more say their family has experienced such help. According to a 2014 Lifeway Research study, 22% said their family had benefited from such a ministry, compared to 33% today.
“The increase we see in Americans saying churches have provided food for their family at some point likely reflects people who had needs for the first time during the pandemic and a lessening of the stigma around receiving such help,” said McConnell. “After the Great Depression ended, it became less common to depend on others for food. Today, however, a large minority of Americans have experienced this generosity from churches.”
Americans 50 and older are less likely to say their family has received such help than those younger. Additionally, those 65 and older (88%) are most likely to say definitively that their family has not benefited from a church-run food pantry.
In some ways, these ministries serve those with closer connections to a local church. Christians who attend worship services at least monthly (37%) are more likely to say their family has benefited from church food pantries than Christians who attend less frequently (24%).
Americans of other religions (41%) and the religiously unaffiliated (35%), however, are more likely than Catholics (27%) to say their family has been helped by food from a church-run pantry.