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Polling Matters
Update on Virtual Worship in the U.S. During COVID-19
Polling Matters

Update on Virtual Worship in the U.S. During COVID-19

We are starting to get new data measuring the possible impact of the coronavirus situation on religious behavior in this country. Gallup's April 14-28 survey finds 27% of Americans reporting having worshipped virtually within the past seven days. Another 4% claim to have worshipped in person, despite the coronavirus restrictions in place in most states.

The combined total of 31% who have worshipped within the past seven days either virtually or in person is roughly in line with recent, pre-virus trends. This tracks with what I reported in 2001 and 2008 -- little lasting change in general worship behavior after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the beginning of the Great Recession. As was the case then, the disruptive virus situation has apparently neither expanded nor diminished Americans' existing worship propensities.

The unique feature now, of course, is the fact that this pattern of worship behavior has stayed stable even as the way in which worship is carried out has shifted dramatically. While we don't see a substantial change in the number of Americans who are worshipping, we do find a major shift in how they are going about it.

The 27% of Americans who say they have worshipped virtually is calculated on the base of the entire U.S. adult population. But about 20% of the population has no personal religious identity and would not be highly likely to be worshipping in any situation. Among the population of those with a religious identity, 33% have worshipped virtually.

Additionally, slightly over half of U.S. adults say they are not a member of a church, synagogue or mosque. Although the lack of church membership would not necessarily preclude one from worshipping, past analysis shows non-members are unlikely to worship on a regular basis. Among those who are members of a church, synagogue or mosque, 49% have worshipped virtually within the past seven days, and another 6% have worshipped in person.

A separate question included in the April 14-28 survey asked respondents about their typical or usual worship patterns. Among the group who normally worship weekly or almost every week, 58% report having worshipped virtually within the past seven days (and another 9% say they worshipped in person). This documents that a clear majority of normal churchgoers, but by no means all, have shifted their worship to a virtual modality.

Over Half of Americans Say They Pray 'Often'

The latest Gallup survey included a general question asking about prayer behavior: "How often do you pray to God outside of religious services?" The question had no specific reference to the virus situation or to the object or content of prayer. The results show that 58% of all Americans say they are praying "often," 17% sometimes, 9% hardly ever or only in times of crisis, and 14% never.

Is this higher than normal? It's difficult to answer that question with precision because there aren't a lot of data to use for comparison. Gallup last asked the "how often do you pray" question 30 years ago, and at that point (in 1990), the level of very frequent prayer was somewhat lower, with 49% saying they prayed often. However, another 28% of those interviewed in 1990 said they prayed sometimes, meaning that the combined category of often/sometimes prayer is about the same today as it was in 1990 (77% then, 75% now).

Pew Research in 2014 found that 55% of Americans reported praying daily or more often, and another 16% weekly -- roughly in line with what we are finding now, although the different question wording makes strict comparisons difficult.

More recently, Pew found in a March 19-24 poll that -- as a result of the coronavirus outbreak -- 55% of Americans said they had prayed for "an end to the spread of the coronavirus." A Fox News poll conducted March 21-24 found that 70% of Americans reported having prayed within the past week for "health and healing."

None of these data suggest that the current 58% "often" prayer frequency is unusually high. This is despite the interesting finding from a study reported in late March showing that Google searches worldwide for the word "prayer" had jumped after the beginning of the virus situation (there doesn't appear to be a more recent update on this indirect measure of interest in prayer).


Frank Newport, Ph.D., is a Gallup Senior Scientist. He is the author of Polling Matters: Why Leaders Must Listen to the Wisdom of the People and God Is Alive and Well. Twitter: @Frank_Newport

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