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Photo by Headway on Unsplash

Courtesy PEW Research Center
Written by By Michelle Faverio, Justin Nortey, Jeff Diamant And Gregory A. Smith

Pew Research Center conducted this survey to explore how Americans use technology in their religious lives. For this report, we surveyed 11,377 U.S. adults from Nov. 16-27, 2022. All respondents to the survey are part of Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel (ATP), an online survey panel that is recruited through national random sampling of residential addresses. This way nearly all U.S. adults have a chance of selection. The survey is weighted to be representative of the U.S. adult population by gender, race, ethnicity, partisan affiliation, education, religious affiliation and other categories. For more, see the ATP’s methodology and the methodology for this report.

About a quarter of U.S. adults regularly watch religious services online or on TV, and most of them are highly satisfied with the experience, according to a new Pew Research Center survey.

The survey also asked about other uses of online technology, like apps and websites, for religious purposes. Key findings include:
  • 30% of U.S. adults say they go online to search for information about religion.
  • 21% use apps or websites to help them read the Bible or other religious scriptures.
  • 15% listen to religion-focused podcasts.
  • 14% use apps or websites to help or remind them to pray.

The survey of more than 11,000 U.S. adults was conducted in November 2022, well after the height of the coronavirus pandemic but before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared an end to the COVID-19 public health emergency.

It’s been clear for more than two years that the video technology that helped Americans stay in touch with relatives, friends and colleagues during COVID-19 lockdowns was also helping many to connect with houses of worship. From kitchens or living rooms, in their Sunday best, pajamas or something in between, those with an internet connection and a screen could pray along with other virtual attendees, listen to sermons, and sing along with choirs, all in real time.

What wasn’t clear, though, was how people felt about these virtual experiences. Would they keep watching services on screens, even after they thought it was safe to attend in person? What did they like about joining services remotely? What didn’t they like? The survey was designed to explore these kinds of questions.

Broadly speaking, the survey finds that most Americans who watch religious services on screens are happy with them. Two-thirds of U.S. adults who regularly stream religious services online or watch them on TV say they are either “extremely satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the services they see.

Similar shares express satisfaction with the sermons they hear during virtual services. In addition, a little more than half say they are highly satisfied with the music at worship services they join online or watch on TV.

At the same time, Americans tend to give higher marks to worshipping together in person. While majorities express satisfaction with virtual services, even bigger shares of physical attenders say they feel extremely or very satisfied with the sermons (74%) and music (69%) at the services they attend in person.

In addition, virtual viewers are much less likely to report feeling connected to other worshippers. Roughly two-thirds (65%) of regular in-person attenders say they feel “a great deal” or “quite a bit” of connection with their fellow attenders, the two highest options on a five-point scale.

By comparison, far fewer regular viewers – 28% – say they feel a strong connection with people who are attending a service in person while they, themselves, are watching on a screen. And 22% of virtual viewers say they feel strongly connected to the other people watching online or on TV.

Not everyone who watches services remotely feels fully engaged. A quarter of regular viewers say they usually feel they are an “active participant” in the service. But 32% say they feel they are watching “without truly being an active participant.” And 42% say they feel a little of both.

Pew Research Center surveys have shown that since early 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic first struck the United States, the percentage of U.S. adults taking part in religious services in a given month – either in person, online/on TV, or both – has held remarkably steady, at about four-in-ten.

But as vaccines became widespread and the pandemic waned, the numbers attending in person rebounded and then plateaued, while the numbers watching on screens have declined.

Defining ‘regular’ watchers and ‘regular’ attenders
Here are the attendance numbers from the latest survey, as of November 2022:
  • 16% of U.S. adults said they were regularly attending religious services only in person (and not online).
  • 10% were regularly watching services only on screens (but not regularly going in person).
  • 17% were regularly doing both.

In total, 43% reported that they generally attend and/or watch religious services at least once a month, or that they attended/watched services in the month prior to the survey.

A majority of U.S. adults (57%) said they do not generally attend religious services and did not do so in the past month, either in person or virtually.1

Looking at the numbers another way, the survey indicates that as the coronavirus pandemic winds down, about a quarter of Americans (27%) are still watching religious services on screens. This includes 10% who take part virtually but do not regularly attend in person, plus 17% who watch online or on TV and attend in person on a regular basis.

Those who do both – who watch services on screens and attend in person – overwhelmingly say they prefer going in person, by a margin of 76% to 11%. An additional 14% say they have no preference.

When asked why they watch religious services online or on TV, many regular viewers cite multiple reasons. But as the COVID-19 pandemic recedes, convenience is the most-commonly selected option – not fear of catching or spreading any illness.

Members of historically Black Protestant denominations are especially likely to be in the virtual audience for church services. While 13% of Protestants who belong to historically Black churches say they attend church in person and don’t regularly watch services virtually, most say they join services both in person and virtually (37%) or only watch remotely on screens (20%).

Part of the reason is continuing concern about COVID-19, which struck Black communities with particular force. The survey also shows that viewers who are members of historically Black Protestant churches are more likely to say they feel like active participants in these virtual services than are viewers who belong to some other faiths.

Survey respondents who said they watch religious services online or on TV were asked a follow-up question: Do they watch virtual services at the same congregation they typically attend in person, or do they sometimes go online/on TV to see services at other congregations, or both?

Among the 17% of U.S. adults who regularly do both things – attend worship services in person and watch them virtually – most say they watch services offered by a congregation other than, or in addition to, the one they typically attend in person. This represents 10% of all U.S. adults.

An additional 7% of U.S. adults say they sometimes attend in person and sometimes watch online/on TV, but they only watch services offered by the congregation they attend in person.