New research predicts that within 18 months of the COVID-19 nationwide restrictions, 1 in 5 churches will be forced to close their doors permanently.

Church attendance and donations have greatly decreased since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, due in large part to government-ordered closures of church services.

Government mandates against large, indoor gatherings forced most churches to switch their services to online forums at the beginning of the pandemic. Months later, many churches are still struggling against government mandates to open their doors again.

David Kinnaman – president of Barna Group, a Christian research organization – told NPR on Monday that even as churches re-open, they are still facing great hardship in attendance and donations.

“…more and more churches are re-opening,” Kinnaman told NPR, “but they’re opening up with a lot less people coming, and they’re recognizing that the relationships that they thought were much deeper with people were actually not as deep as they expected.”

Kinnaman has been calling pastors nationwide every week to gauge their hope for the future and the current state of their congregations. At the beginning of the pandemic, around 70% of the pastors he spoke with were “very confident” that their church would outlast the pandemic.

Now, that number has dropped to 58%.

“…simply re-opening a church doesn’t fix the underlying economic challenges,” Kinnaman said.

According to Kinnaman, there are over 300,000 Protestant and 14,000 Catholic congregations in America. The vast majority of these churches rely on donations from their congregants to keep the churches running, to pay their pastors, and to run charities and other outreaches in their communities.

NPR also interviewed Robert Turner, the pastor of Vernon AME Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, who reported that their tithe donations dropped significantly since the beginning of the pandemic.

“Most of the members we have joined during the heyday. They’re now old – they’re senior citizens,” said Pastor Turner. The church live streams their services every Sunday, but older populations are not as quick to engage in online communities. “So our finances have taken a huge blow,” he explained.

Barna Group also released findings that 1 in 3 practicing Christians have stopped attending church altogether since the beginning of the pandemic.

Kinnaman told NPR, “We’ll look back at this pandemic as a fundamental change to the ways Americans both attend church…and I think it’s also going to change the way people think about their donation relationship with local churches as well…”

“The digital church is here to stay.”