Speaking with a Divided Voice: The US Church in a Time of COVID
By Ryan Dalforno and Doug Fountain
The global COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity for the global church to shine. In the U.S., global church membership is declining and more people are accessing church resources online. Is the church using this moment to support its clergy, lay leaders, and members with current information about health, global health, and COVID?
We analyzed the websites of the 56 largest U.S. church denominations and sub-denominations (which we term assemblies) for information about health, global health, and COVID-19. We identified all assemblies with over 500 congregations (average of 5,127 and total of over 287,000 U.S. congregations). We found that 61% of assembly websites have general guidance on COVID-19, 46% have information on financial support for COVID-19, and 18% had information on vaccines.
Few assembly websites have information about health generally, (21%) or global health specifically (14%). Those that had information on health and global health also had information on COVID-19 and vaccines. Larger assemblies (with more than 4500 congregations) were more likely to share COVID-19 guidance, but other observed differences between the larger assemblies were not statistically significant.
An assembly website is a verifiable proxy for the voice of the American church for health and for COVID-19. While we do not anticipate all regular members of churches will closely monitor their parent church websites, we believe that clergy and lay leaders do track the messages of their parent body. The presence or absence of critical information will affect how clergy and lay leaders think and act: for many people in U.S. churches, if they look at their assembly websites, they would not be able to tell that the whole world is engulfed in a struggle against a deadly virus. When websites are silent about health and COVID-19, people and local churches are left to their own resources; silence also can convey a lack of concern about issues that people confront every day in their lives.
The impact of COVID-19 will be felt globally for generations to come. Illness and lost life, strains on health systems, disruption to economies, and fractures of families are among its immediate and lasting consequences. To top that off, gender-based violence is expected to increase as people are locked down, and pandemics tend to exacerbate inequities in income, employment and access to services.
This is a moment for the global church to shine, to comfort people who are hurting and help them navigate difficult times. The global church earned a reputation for responding compassionately to pandemics, starting in the third century when Christians placed themselves at risk when caring for people affected by plagues.
Certainly COVID has disrupted how people experience church, at a time that the church is going through major changes. According to Pew Research Center, 70.6% of all adults in the United States belong to the Christian religious tradition, with over half of American adults self-identifying as “Christian” across all 50 states. Recent Gallup data show, however, that the proportion of U.S. adults who report church membershipfell beneath 50% in 2020 for the first time in history.
Church, as we know it, is changing. COVID-19 has radically altered how most of the world approaches physical gatherings. During this pandemic, 72% of adults who regularly attended religious services in person have participated in streamed services. Over half of U.S. adults say that they have attended religious services in person less often as a result of the pandemic, and four-in-ten churchgoers have replaced attending in-person church participation with virtual church participation.
Many centralized church bodies have, as a result, expanded online resources for their congregation members, supplementing existing community structures with online sermons, support services, and information. This led us to consider whether, and how, the church is speaking about health and global health generally, and COVID specifically. Our belief is that, to remain relevant in the lives of people, the church would provide great resources for its clergy, lay leaders, and members.
We developed two questions:
Does the emergence of online resources also mean that websites provide a useful, high-level view of information available about health generally, and offer COVID guidance, COVID financial assistance, or vaccines?
Is the U.S. church speaking about global health and global engagement in this time of crisis?
We undertook an analysis of U.S. denomination websites to answer these questions.
Denominational church websites in the United States were selected for analysis from a directory of Christian churches registered with USAChurches.org, an independent submission-based Christian church listing service. Churches were classified by intra-denominational church associations, which we termed “assemblies.” For example, the Southern Baptist Convention and the American Baptist Association represent two separate “assemblies” within the Baptist denomination. We included all church assemblies listed with USAChurches.org, but excluded those with fewer than 500 separate U.S. congregations. In all, 56 assemblies were included in this study, comprising 287,148 separate congregations. The largest assemblies are the Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention.
Table 1: Description of the Assemblies Studied
We further classified these by size (Figure 1) into small (500-1500 congregations, N=20), medium (1501-4500 congregations, N=19), large (4501-10,000 congregations, N=9) and very large assemblies (>10,000 congregations, N=8).
Figure 1. Distribution of Assemblies by Number of Congregations
We reviewed each assembly website for information on health, global health, missions, and three indicators on COVID-19. To be counted, information on the website had to be available within three clicks of the website’s landing page, or within the first page of results if the assembly website has a search function. Each Assembly’s website was reviewed and simply coded “yes or no” for the following key indicators:
1. Health – Does the assembly offer information or resources regarding healthy behavior (i.e. diet, exercise, smoking, etc.)? Does the church list health promotion in their stated goals? 2. Global Health – (Usually found as a subtopic under “global missions”) If the assembly has resources focusing on global outreach, do those resources/information include promotion of physical or mental health programs? Does the assembly have a food assistance/agricultural assistance program as part of their global assistance focus? 3. Global Missions – Does the assembly have an active missions/assistance ministry program operating outside of the United States? 4. COVID-19 Guidance – Does the assembly offer resources for safe, socially distanced church operations? Does the assembly provide basic guidance or resources on COVID-19-related topics such as transmission or risk mitigation behavior? 5. COVID-19 Vaccines – Does the assembly provide resources or guidance (e.g. a link to the CDC or WHO) on vaccination? Does the assembly take a concrete stance on vaccination or urge its members to become vaccinated? Does the assembly engage at all with moral questions surrounding vaccination? (Yes to any of the above is a “Yes”) 6. COVID-19 Financial Resources – Does the assembly offer financial assistance to churches struggling because of COVID-19-related economic slowdown? If not, does the assembly provide resources (links, tips, etc.) for assemblies to apply for federal or state loans?
A full list of the data is included here. We used simple descriptive statistics to summarize the findings across this “census” of U.S. church assemblies. Where possible, we also used Chi-squared tests to compare categorical variables.
While 71% of assembly websites had some information about global mission, only 21% mentioned health and only 14% had information about global health issues (Table 2). General guidance on COVID-19 was available in 61% of assembly websites and 46% had information about financial support to people or congregations, but only 18% had any information about vaccination.
Table 2. Were Key Indicators Found on Assembly Websites? (N=56)
Size of assembly is correlated with having information about health and COVID-19 (Table 3). Large and very large assemblies were more likely than small or medium assemblies to have information about health (41% vs 13%), global health (29% vs 8%), COVID Guidance (77% vs 54%), COVID financial resources (59% vs 46%) and vaccines (29% vs 13%). However, the only statistically significant difference was large and very large assemblies conveying COVID-19 guidance.
Table 3. How Many Websites Had Key Indicators Among Large and Small Assemblies?
Assembly websites that conveyed information about health, global health or both were also likely to convey information about COVID-19 and Vaccines (Table 4). Assemblies that have health information were more likely to have COVID information than not (10 vs 2) but they were equally likely to have information about vaccines as not (6 vs 6). All assembly websites that had information on both health and global health had COVID-19 guidance and vaccine information.
Table 4. How Many Websites with Health, Global Health or Both Also Had COVID-19 or Vaccine Information?
While just over 61% of assembly websites have some guidance on COVID-19, most do not convey any other information on health, global health, COVID financial support or vaccines. Large and very large assemblies seem to have more information about these than small or medium assemblies, though these differences are not statistically significant.
Many church attendees may not routinely scour their assembly website for information, but influencers within the assemblies, including clergy and lay leaders, surely do. At best, this is a missed opportunity to convey information about our global situation in health and the role that the church can play; and to help influencers find accurate and common language to use with their congregations. At worst, silence can be construed as lack of support or engagement that could undercut efforts within assemblies to prioritize responding to the pandemic, whether locally or globally.
A limitation of this study is that we did not evaluate the quality or nature of the messages. Frankly, some churches may hold messages that are contrary to established factual positions about COVID-19 and its devastating impact on domestic and international health.
There are three implications of this work.
First, there needs to be more thoughtful study of the role that the U.S. church plays in U.S. and global health issues. How can the church rise to the occasion and speak with a common voice, expressed out of concern for health and healing for a world that is in need?
Second, church leaders ought to consider the impact of their voice – or their lack of voice – in these matters. Total silence on health and COVID in this moment in history is shocking. Church leaders have a role to play in speaking calmly and rationally to quell people’s fears. They also have a pivotal voice to confront rumors and conspiracies that otherwise would thrive in the absence of good faithful leadership.
Third, policymakers and public health experts ought to find ways to work more directly to help these church assemblies overcome some of these gaps. Common reference websites and resource pages would help.
It is short sighted to differentiate U.S. health from global health. It is impractical or impossible to contain pandemics at borders. We are also part of one, universal church and should be concerned about the well-being of our sisters and brothers.
Strong, common voices of faith leaders can help lead people to good practices and to seek evidence-based health services when needed. The body of Christ and the voice of the Church is just as global as any pandemic and is an enormous channel for hope, health and wholeness.
Finally, the lack of a consistent, ecumenical response of acknowledgement and solidarity with those affected by COVID-19 may contribute to declining relevancy in the Christian church today. The decline in U.S. church membership mentioned earlier raises the question: Why, and what can be done about this?
These websites reflect the goals of the highest levels of assembly leadership and serve as centralized locations which clergy of individual congregations and their members visit to obtain critical information. If there was any guidance or response to be found to any topic the assembly feels is worth responding to, these websites should be where church leaders show signs of response. A complete lack of mention of COVID-19 indicates egregious apathy at worst, or lack of concern and priority at best.
Silence about health and COVID can be seen as a signal from the church. Young people, especially, expect the institutions with which they affiliate themselves to be as adept as they are in adjusting to a rapidly shifting world. The silence of many assemblies disregards those suffering in a global pandemic which has touched every facet of our lives. As a young person myself (Ryan), I was astonished to discover that even a single mention of COVID-19 was absent from nearly 40% of the examined assembly websites.
Some of the assembly websites provide excellent information, while others do not. It would be better to see consistent and accurate information conveyed across all websites. This divergence though indicates that the U.S. church has two faces: one that seeks to be current and relevant, and another that is not.
If any layperson were to look at a significant proportion of these virtual public faces, they would not be able to tell that the whole world is engulfed in a struggle against a deadly virus.
In James 5:14a, members of the body of Christ are reminded “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church.” For over a year now, the inescapable presence of data, testimony, and personal experience has provided more than enough evidence to show that the whole of humanity is sick and suffering at this moment. If we lament the decline of the U.S. church, then we should question why the sick should be calling for the elders of the church if there is a very real chance that there will be no response. The true division between the voices of these assemblies is perhaps not split along the line of their content, but along the line of whether anything is being said at all.
About the authors: Ryan Dalforno is currently an intern with CCIH and will graduate in May from Pepperdine University with a B.S. in Biology. Doug Fountain serves as CCIH Executive Director.