Congregation Shopping in the Pandemic

By Nicholas J. Higgins and Paul A. Djupe

[Image credit: Minnesota UMC]

In March 2020 as the first wave of the COVID-19 became a national pandemic, most states imposed or asked houses of worship (and other social institutions) to close in order to “stop the spread” and “flatten the curve.” Much of our attention has focused on houses of worship defying those orders, fueled by the prosperity gospel, and the litigation that resulted. But one of the results of these closure orders/invitations was that most houses of worship took steps to add some online worship capacity. This action led to the question “Did this move increase congregation shopping during the pandemic?”

In new research published open access in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, we assess the degree to which people shopped congregations in the months preceding October 2020 in the ramp-up of the second wave of the pandemic. In a survey of 1790 Americans gathered through Qualtrics Panels, we asked, “Have you visited another congregation in person or online in the past 6 months?” The response options were yes, no, and don’t know (the latter two were combined). Of the respondents who reported pre-pandemic attendance at rates above never, 34.8 percent reported shopping for a congregation online or in person in the past 6 months. Strict comparables are not available, but this amount seems very high relative to the 30-40 percent (depending on the specific group) who have ever shopped in their lifetimes according to Robert Wuthnow’s analysis in his 2007 book.

Our theory is that two principal factors contributed to an increase in shopping. First, the pandemic made shopping easy by providing so many online options. Not all congregations moved online, but roughly 75 percent did at some level (according to research with the same data in another paper; Pew found a similar result). Second, because congregations were not meeting face to face, attending another congregation online was a socially costless act – no one needed to explain why they were not attending their home congregation. And because many are presumably recorded rather than just streamed live, other worship services could be watched at any time.

The social costs of shopping would be minimized when the congregation is closed due to the pandemic and when the congregation is larger – both minimize the social surveillance available in small groups. This is just what we find, shown in Figure 1 below. For congregations with over 1000 people in attendance that were closed due to the pandemic, shopping rates approached 60 percent. For those open to worship – the vast minority – the shopping rate hovered around 20 percent and did not increase with congregation size. This difference provides reasonably strong evidence about the bonding power of social ties in retaining connection with a congregation.

Figure 1 – Congregational Shopping Was Higher for those Normally Attending Large, Closed Congregations

The increase in shopping is not merely a consequence of opportunity, but also appears to be a function of motivation; though not in the typical way that we might have previously thought. In previous work, congregation shopping was a signal of dissatisfaction with a congregation and was itself a sign of having left. That is, the process was assumed to begin with a decision to leave, followed by the choice to shop around for a new congregation. But in October 2020, shopping was more likely among high worship attenders. That is, those most connected to their congregation were the most likely to say they attended another congregation online or in person in the last 6 months.

Here’s the other thing that’s distinctive about October 2020 – shopping itself was not linked to leaving. That is, we also asked whether they were “still attending the same house of worship you were attending in the Spring of 2020?” (this was only asked of those who said they were attending a house of worship in the spring). Just under 20 percent indicated that they were not still attending that congregation. This indicates that the bonding social capital of church attendence has elasciticy, able to be stretched without breaking.

Shopping did seem to exacerbate some underlying conditions, however. Just as previous research has found, political disagreement in the congregation can help dislodge those people who are weakly tied to the congregation. When examining differences between perceived political support for Donald Trump between the congregant and the leadership, we find that at the most extreme levels of disagreement, about 50 percent of people were projected to leave (though there are very few people in that condition within the survey). However, as shown below, it is clear that disagreement has no estimated effect among those with normally high levels of worship attendance (the line is flat) and that shopping appears to almost double the effect of disagreement when paired with low levels of attendance.

Figure 2 – Leaving a Congregation was Much More Common When They Disagreed with their Congregation Politically, Already Attended at a Low Rate, and Had Shopped Congregations

If the availability of online worship services remains an enduring practice fueled by the pandemic, we suspect that shopping will remain high compared to pre-pandemic levels. This “new normal” may have many consequences, even if our results hold that shopping does not directly drive leaving. Two possibilities: The increased competition for new attender and retention attempts for current congregants may intensify the pressures on congregations to attract and retain attenders in part because they will have to assume that people are shopping while they do not know their likelihood of leaving. It could also promote standardization among houses of worship, especially in the same community. If political engagement, for instance, is becoming more common among evangelicals, ease of accessing other congregations could encourage the diffusion of that norm. Of course, it may also promote niching as greater competition promotes differentiation in terms of theology, politics, and organizational engagements.

Nicholas J. Higgins is Associate Professor and Department Chair of the Political Science, Criminal Justice & Legal Studies Department at North Greenville University. Further information can be found at his website and TwNickJHigginitter.

Paul A. Djupe directs the Data for Political Research program at Denison University, is an affiliated scholar with PRRI, the series editor of Religious Engagement in Democratic Politics (Temple), and co-creator of religioninpublic.blog. Further information about his work can be found at his website and on Twitter.

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