Pollsters have been asking people about their church attendance for years now. Gallup polls, the Barna group, the Institute for Social Research all reach the same conclusion. About 42 percent of Americans attended worship somewhere in the last seven days.
A new study, however, is calling that percentage into question. What we may actually have from the pollsters is 42 percent of Americans “claiming” to attend worship regularly. The actual number may be far lower—perhaps by as much as half!
The new research is detailed in the September issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. C. Kirk Hadaway, director of research for the Episcopal Church Center, and Penny Long Marler, professor of religion at Samford University, have developed an approach for determining worship attendance that does not rely entirely on polling, and in fact is suspicious of the accuracy of certain polls.
Pollsters have long known that people do not always provide factual information when responding to questions about personal behavior. The tendency is to down play the negative such as illegal drug use, while playing up the positive such as charitable contributions or volunteer activity. Hadaway and Marler believe the same sort of thing happens when folks are asked about going to church.
Using actual attendance numbers from denominational and diocesan records, as well as estimates based on surveys and interviews with church leaders, Hadaway and Marler conclude that, for whatever reason, folks don’t go to church as much as they say they do.
Out of an estimated 331,000 congregations nationwide, representing Christians and non-Christians of nearly every stripe, weekly attendance averaged about 21 percent. This is far below the consistent 42 percent that traditional pollsters find.
There are many implications suggested by this data, but for me it helps to explain a frustrating trend among evangelicals. For a long time now there has seemed a sort of disconnect between the behaviors of folks professing Christian faith and the traditional teaching of the church.
Our response to poverty is but one example. Many Christians hold views about poverty and how we should respond to it that are clearly informed by a political and economic ideology rather than the idealistic vision of the Bible. The prophets railed against their communities for their neglect of the widow and orphan. The teaching of Jesus deepens this tradition. Jesus told his followers that they would always find him in the lives of the poor.
In light of the biblical witness on these issues, why do so many Christians ignore or dispute the plight of the poor and the homeless? In the last two decades the so-called social safety net has been torn to shreds by tax cuts and program reductions. How do we reconcile this to Jesus’ words that the poor are blessed, and we are to care for the least of these?
And we can’t say it’s all on the shoulders of individual kindness and local places of worship. When Jesus called on us to care for the “least of these” he was talking to “the nations.”
Could it be that 88 percent of us were not in church the day that part of the New Testament was explained?
The study also bodes ill for the next generation. If parents are not in church learning their faith, chances are their children won’t be either. At least this generation knows it should be in church and claims they are about twice as much as they really are. The next generation may not value church at all. Why should they if their parents are rarely there?
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.