How many Americans go to church regularly?
If you listen to the answers provided by major opinion research firms, the answer usually hovers around 40%. (National Opinion Research Center: 38%; Institute for Social Research’s World Values: 44%; Barna: 41%; National Election Studies: 40%; Gallup: 41%.)
But in recent years this consensus has been challenged. It seems that it’s more accurate to say that 40% of Americans claim to attend church regularly.
In 1998, sociologist Stanley Presser at the University of Michigan—whose “research focuses on questionnaire design and testing, the accuracy of survey responses, and ethical issues stemming from the use of human subjects”—co-authored a study entitled: Data Collection Mode and Social Desirability Bias in Self-Reported Religious Attendance, American Sociological Review, v. 63 (1998): 137-145 (with L. Stinson). Comparing diaries with actual attendance, they made the estimate that the actual percentage of Americans attending church from the mid-1960’s to the 90’s was about 26%.
One of the problem comes in how the question is asked in a poll. Different questions yield different results. For example, in a survey you might ask, “What did you do last weekend?” listing for the person a number of possible activities, including church-going. This will yield a very different response than if you asked, “Did you attend church last Sunday?”
One factor is that people often answer according to what they think someone like them wants or ought to do. So people tend to overreport on the number of sexual partners they’ve had and how much money they give to charity, and tend to underreport on illegal drug use and the like. Hence, church attendance is often inflated.
In 1998 C. Kirk Hadaway and P.L. Marler published an article in the Christian Century entitled, Did You Really Go To Church This Week? Behind the Poll Data where they examine many of these factors. The authors focused on individual counties in the US and Canada, surveying actual church/synagogue attendance and comparing it with random surveys they were conducting. They found that actual church attendance was about half the rate indicated by national public opinion polls. Their estimate for US actual church attendance is around 20%.
Dave Olson, director of church planting for the Evangelical Covenant Church, surveying only Christian churches (i.e., evangelical, mainline, and Catholic) has come up with a similar number. The percentage of Americans regularly attending church is 18.7%.
Olson has collected his findings in an eye-opening slide-show entitled Twelve Surprising Facts about the US Church. The 12 points cannot be copied and pasted, so I’ve reprinted them below, along with links to his charts and maps.
- The percentage of people that attend a Christian church each weekend is far below what pollsters report. (US percentage of population in worship on any given weekend in 2000)
- The percentage of people attending a Christian church each weekend decreased significantly from 1990-2000. (US worship attendance in 1990 and 2000 by percentage of population)
- Christian church attendance is between 1 ½ and 2 times higher in the South and the Midwest than it is in the West and the Northeast. (Percentage of population attending a Christian church on any given weekend in 2000)
- Only one state [Hawaii] saw an increase in the percentage attending church from 1990-2000. [California, Connecticut, Georgia, and Washington were close to keeping up with population growth.] (Increase or decline in percentage of population attending a Christian church on any given weekend 1990–2000)
- The percentage that attends church on any given weekend is declining in over two thirds of the counties in the United States. [Among the states with the highest percentages of declining counties were Minnesota, Wisconsin, and South Carolina.] (US counties: Increase or decline in percentage of population attending a Christian church on any given weekend 1990–2000)
- Evangelicals, mainliners, and Catholics are strongest in very different regions of the country. (maps for Evangelicals, mainliners, and Catholics)
- Churches with 50–299 people in attendance are shrinking, while the smallest churches and larger churches are growing. (Decadal growth rate of churches by size category)
- Established churches, from 40–180 years old, on average decline in attendance. (Yearly attendance growth of existing churches by decade started)
- The increase in the number of churches is about one eighth of what is needed to keep up with population growth. (Net increase in number of churches in the US between 1990 and 2000)
- The church-planting rate has been declining throughout the history of our country. (Churches started per 1 million residents)
- Existing churches are plateauing and new church growth provides less than half of the growth necessary to keep up with population growth. (Attendance growth percentage of Protestant churches 1990–2000)
- If the present trends continue, the percentage of the population that attends church in 2050 will be almost half of what it is today. (Projected percentage of population attending church on any given weekend)
[I originally post this entry in October 2005. If readers know of updated studies along these lines, let me know.]