Little Rock Congregations Study shows impact of COVID-19 on religious institutions

Rebecca Glazier

The results of the 2020 Little Rock Congregations Study (LRCS), a research project based at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, shows that COVID-19 had a major impact on religious institutions in Little Rock. 

The study is led by UA Little Rock professors Rebecca Glazier, Gerald Driskill, and Kirk Leach, in consultation with the project’s Clergy Advisory Board, a group of eight clergy members in Little Rock who advise the Little Rock Congregations Study.

The LRCS researchers, including a class of nine students, worked with 35 diverse congregations in Little Rock to survey nearly 2,300 church members in October 2020. The surveys included questions about congregation priorities, physical, mental, and spiritual health, and community issues. 

The Little Rock Congregations Study research team and the Clinton School of Public Service will host three facilitated dialogues this month on the issues survey participants identified as the most important: education (Feb. 11), healthcare (Feb. 18), and marriage and family (Feb. 25).

The Covid-19 pandemic was the most common reason provided for why respondents had changed their attendance behavior. Most (71.88%) of the respondents are attending worship services about as often as they were a year ago before Covid-19, but 21 percent say that they are attending less often and nearly 7 percent say that they are attending more often.

“Some people are attending more because the pandemic has sparked a greater need for spiritual connection, but many more people are attending less because the pandemic has reduced service times, made in-person services more difficult, or made online services the only option, which some find less appealing,” Glazier said.

Churches also found creative solutions, in addition to online services, to hold worship services during the pandemic. Second Baptist Church Downtown, for example, began holding outdoor services at Lake Nixon, where the church hosts a summer camp and preschool. Meanwhile, City of Refuge Community Church held curbside communion in its parking lot, where members could drive up, receive communion and a prayer, and then drive home.

“We married the sacred with safety,” Pastor Neal Scroggins said. “Using what the culture had shifted to in order to survive financially, our local churches used the same principle to survive spiritually. It’s the simple things that stand out. Driving a car to our church parking lot, while remaining physically distant, our masked and gloved servers were able to accomplish convenience, community, connection and communion.”

At a time when many people are suffering from mental health issues because of the pandemic, the study also found that having a close connection with a worship community and providing service is associated with better mental health.

Those congregation members with better mental health also attend worship services more often, have warmer feelings about their congregation, give more hours of service to their community, and give more hours of service to their congregation.

Increased spiritually has positive benefits for congregations and also for communities. About 1/3 of the respondents are more deeply spiritual, compared to the rest of the sample. These are people who feel closer to God today than they did a year ago, who regularly feel thankful for their blessings, who regularly experience God’s love, and who often feel a deep sense of spiritual peace. 

“These people are significantly more likely to provide service to their congregation and to attend worship services, a finding we would expect,” Glazier said. “But their spirituality also has positive consequences for the broader community. Deeply spiritual respondents are also more likely to provide service to the community, believe they can make a difference in their community, and be engaged in talking about and helping to solve community issues.”

Race and Religion in Little Rock

Over the past eight years, race relations have increased in importance as a community issue for the clergy in Little Rock. In 2020, 88 percent of responding clergy leaders agree or strongly agree that Little Rock has a problem with racial division, but the vast majority also believes that things will get better. A lower number of congregation members, 77 percent, agree or strongly agree that Little Rock has a problem with racial division.

“Talking about issues of race can be difficult, especially in a city like Little Rock, with a living history of racial injustice, but religious leaders have the moral authority to lead these difficult conversations,” Glazier said. “More than any other community issue, people believe their places of worship should be involved in helping to address the issue of race relations.”

The study also showed that a majority of church members want their congregations to help solve issues within the community. The top issues that members want their congregations to solve include: race (90%), foster care (86%), marriage/family (85%), prison (81%), inequality (80.5%), health (74.5%), homelessness (67.5%), and crime (60%).

Community Engagement

Churches were found to adapt their ongoing mission work to meet the new needs of the community during COVID-19. St. James United Methodist Church, for example, shifted meals with the homeless to go-to boxes, changed the on-site food pantry to a drive-thru model, brought meals to medical staff at local hospitals, and sewed thousands of facemasks to donate.

“There’s a hunger in people to find ways to make a practical difference with their faith,” Reverend Carness Vaughan said. “As our people are getting more deeply connected with Christ, they’re searching for that outlet to exhibit their faith and to live out their faith.”

Likewise, the Madina Institute also started a Community Mask Campaign to financially support women who have lost jobs during the pandemic by giving them sewing machines to help stitch facemasks and donating masks to those in need.

“Now we are not only helping Muslims and immigrant communities, but we are also providing face masks to several faith communities, nursing homes, and churches whose congregations primarily consist of colored, marginalized or low-income communities in Central Arkansas,” said Sophia Said, founder of the Madina Institute.

Jade McCain, a senior political science major from Poplar Bluff, Missouri, was a student researcher working on the 2020 LRCS as part of a class on Religion and Community Engagement, taught by Glazier. As part of the course, Jade McCain researched the differences between religious minorities and majorities in Little Rock. Black Protestant, Muslim, and Jewish congregations are classified as religious minorities, while Mormon, Mainline Protestant, Catholic, and Evangelical congregations are classified as majorities.

“Some of my major findings were that the clergy messages from religious minority congregations were focused more on political advocacy and social action, while the clergy messages from religious majority congregations were more focused on the importance of marriage and family,” McCain said. “Religious minority clergy leaders are also more focused on urging members to vote, while religious majority clergy leaders are focused on personal spiritual growth. My overall findings concluded that religious minorities in Little Rock have more progressive views like advocacy while religious majorities in Little Rock are more traditional views like family.”

The Little Rock Congregations Study research team is working with a practicum team of five students from the Clinton School of Public Service this spring to host three facilitated dialogues for the community on the issues survey participants identified as the most important: education (Feb. 11), healthcare (Feb. 18), and marriage and family (Feb. 25).

These dialogues will bring together congregations and nonprofits to talk about these important community issues and help make connections for collaboration. The discussions will be held virtually, and those interested can register at this website.

The LRCS Facilitated Dialogue Series will take place:

Thursday, Feb. 11, 6-8 p.m., Education

Thursday, Feb. 18, 6-8 p.m., Healthcare

Thursday, Feb. 25, 6-8 p.m., Marriage and Family

For more information about the LRCS, visit its website or contact Glazier, at raglazier@ualr.edu.

The full 2020 Little Rock Congregations Study Executive Report is available here.

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