August 4, 2022
Since before the pandemic, Barna has been tracking “worship shifting” and the uncertain digital and physical realities of churches in America. As the pandemic era accelerated the reality of a “New Sunday Morning,” many pastors have been been asking “what is going on with church attendance?”
Patterns of attendance among younger generations can be especially important—and perplexing—for pastors to understand, in their own church and at large. Barna Group has studied the intersection of faith and culture for nearly four decades, with an emphasis on generational trends. This article explores recent data to help church leaders ground themselves in the present reality of church attendance across generations—especially Millennials—in 2022.
How Millennial Church Attendance Has Shifted During the Pandemic
Aggregate data for 2019 through 2022 highlights some of the fluctuations that have surrounded church attendance through the pandemic, affecting all generations in similar fashion. In 2021, there was less than a 10-percentage point difference between the church attendance of Millennials, Gen X and Boomers (taken together, today’s 23–75-year-olds). Although Millennials (and, emerging behind them, Gen Z) are known for declines in religiosity, data show that, since 2019, the percentage of Millennials reporting weekly church attendance has increased from 21 percent to 39 percent. Among Gen X, attendance has increased 8 percentage points (24% to 32%). While Boomers show an increase in their attendance during the pandemic in 2020 (31% weekly), recent numbers show a decrease in attendance (25% in 2022).
It may seem counterintuitive that attendance could have climbed in 2020, but this engagement may also include online forms. “In 2020 and 2021, our data represents churchgoers either settling into or opting out of online attendance,” Daniel Copeland, Associate Vice President of Research at Barna Group, explains. “Despite all of the disruptions of 2020, the opportunity of online worship actually helped to boost attendance across all generations. However, in 2021, the novelty seemed to have worn off and people’s church attendance declined significantly. Now, in 2022, younger generations especially are re-engaging in church, a shift that might potentially mark a new chapter in church attendance.”
Non-White Millennials Drive Increase in Church Attendance
The boost in Millennial attendance may surprise some, especially pastors. Barna’s data suggest the increase of Millennials’ overall church attendance can largely be attributed to non-white Millennials.
In 2019, a breakdown of church attendance by race showed that one-quarter of white adults (26%) and three in 10 nonwhite adults (31%) were attending church weekly. Following fluctuations due to the surge of COVID-19, 2022 numbers have steadied and shifted upward, to 30 percent of white adults and 40 percent of non-white adults.
Among Millennials specifically, there wasn’t a statistically significant difference between white and non-white attendance in 2019. However, as of 2022, 45 percent of non-white Millennials are attending church weekly, compared to 35 percent of white Millennials.
“When we first recognized the shift in Millennial church attendance, we hoped to answer the question, ‘What segment of Millennials could account for this change?'” Copeland shares. “We looked at Millennials from various segmentations—including marital status, current employment, whether or not they have children in the home, etc.—and found that the most clear explanation for this shift sat with non-white Millennials. Studying this data may help leaders recognize either an opportunity or a blind spot in their ministries. While over the past two years many leaders have anticipated church going ‘back to normal,’ maybe it’s time to consider what the new opportunities are in store for the future Church.”
Millennials Most Likely to Hop Churches & Embrace Hybrid Worship
When we asked all Christians who attended church pre-COVID how they would describe their church attendance through the pandemic, three groups emerged.
- Holders: The roughly two in three (61%) who have been attending the same church
- Hoppers: The one in four (23%) who have either moved churches or been attending multiple churches
- Dropouts: The one in six (16%) who have stopped attending church
Notably, Millennials are the most likely generation to be hoppers (22%), while Boomers are most likely to be dropouts (22%). While this data does not fully explain the variance of church attendance experiences during the pandemic, it serves as a reminder that 61 percent of Christians who attended church pre-pandemic have continued to worship in the same place.
Of course, when you ask where people attend church, digital options are accounted for more than ever before. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the majority of church attendance happened exclusively in person. Today, that’s only true for about half of churched adults. In fact, one in five (20%) is still primarily attending online, and one in four (26%) is mixing online and in-person worship. While in-person attendance is still reported by the plurality of churched adults, regardless of age, Millennial churched adults are most likely to have embraced hybrid options, with one in three attending both online and in person.
“It’s important to remember that Millennials are not the ‘up and coming’ generation anymore,” Copeland notes. “Indeed, they currently make up the majority of the adult population and workforce. They are also the most racially, socially and culturally diverse generation in modern history.
“This data should serve as an encouragement to leaders,” he concludes. “Should church leaders keep themselves open to something new, there are new opportunities in store for the health and the future of the Church.”