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How the Pandemic Impacted Faith

Did the pandemic year draw people away from religious community and commitments— or reinforce them? The answer is both—depending on who you’re talking about.

It’s no overstatement to say the 2020 lockdowns affected nearly every aspect of life. In some parts of our lives, we found ourselves more resilient than we would have believed; in other parts of our lives, we struggled in unbelievable ways.

For the religious person, public acts of devotion such as going to Church, Mass, Mosque, or Synagogue, ended abruptly (or at least were radically transformed). Life was dramatically upended for so many: children not going to school, loss of employment, social ties being cut. When that happened, did individuals increase their private devotion to make up for the lost public devotion? Or, did their private devotion wane without the supporting structure of public devotion? Or, did their private devotion carry on as normal? What about family religious activities such as family prayer and scripture study? In their faith, did families step up or take a step back?

The Family Foundation of Youth Development project just happened to be collecting its fourth year of data during Summer 2020. We have been tracking teens and their parents since 2016 to examine how youth develop across time with a special emphasis on faith, particularly for Latter-day Saints. In 2020, we surveyed a random sample of over 1,700 youth and one of their parents, approximately half of them being Latter-day Saints (see foundations.byu.edu for the study’s methodology). 

For the religious person, public acts of devotion such as going to Church, Mass, Mosque, or Synagogue, ended abruptly (or at least were radically transformed).

In Summer 2020, we asked youth and parents if COVID-19 had affected their private and family religious practices, and, if so, how. Overall, 20% of youth and 30% of parents increased their private religiosity. For family religious practices, 34% of youth and 25% of parents say they increased. Overall, individuals and families roughly split somewhat evenly across increasing, decreasing, or staying the same in these practices. When it comes to personal and family religiosity, it’s clear not everyone reacted in the same way.

What is interesting is when these numbers are broken out by religion. For Latter-day Saints, 31% of youth and 45% of adults increased their personal religious practices. These numbers are nearly three times higher than for non-Latter-day Saints, of whom 11% of youth and 16% of parents increased their personal religious practices. Even more dramatically, in Latter-day Saint families, 63% of parents reported an increase in family religious practices while only 13% of non-Latter-day Saints indicated an increase in family religious practices.

Although we cannot fully determine the reason for these differences, the somewhat unique characteristics (both recent and longstanding characteristics) of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints may be a partial explanation.

A relevant characteristic is, of course, the Latter-day Saint instruction that religiosity should be “Home Centered, Church Supported.” When religious devotion is focused within the walls of the home rather than the Church, religiosity is more likely to permeate the multiple aspects of home life: leisure, (home)work, family life, friends, etc.  That the Church of Jesus Christ recently provided each member with a home study curriculum in Come, Follow Me, provided a framework for personal devotion with the home.

One long-standing aspect of the faith likely facilitating the increase in family religious devotion (particularly when compared to other religious groups) is a priesthood of all worthy males. In many Christian denominations, the right to administer the sacrament (referred to in other religions as the Eucharist or Communion) is held by only a few members of the congregation.

Within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that authority is spread throughout the congregation, with many having in their own homes an individual with that authority. Further, each home has two individuals with that authority assigned to them to care for them and (most likely) able to provide the sacrament. We chuckle on occasion as we call a young, 15-year-old boy a “priest.” Yet the gravity of that has dawned on many families over the last year.

The lockdowns seemed to show the substantial benefit of such a system. This has been a time of fragile personal connections, challenging social and emotional wellbeing worldwide. But connecting as families around the fundamentals of religion (loving God and loving others) provides us with opportunities to do the hard work with the raw materials of family life.

Of course, family religious practices may help us come closer, and sometimes the opposite is true. But despite the challenges in implementation, family religious practices can afford parents at minimum, a good opportunity to pass along ideas that bring happiness to generations in the faith.

About the author

Justin Dyer

Justin Dyer is a professor of Church History and Doctrine at BYU. He specializes in statistical methodology. He has a PhD in human and community development from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
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