Breaking News: Americans lie about church attendance

A new study shows that Americans aren’t being 100 percent truthful when it comes to answering questions about their weekly church attendance.

(More details here.)

Fewer than one in four Americans actually attend church regularly, but 35-45 percent of the population claims to attend church regularly.

I have long suspected that weekly attendance is greatly exaggerated. Why? Roughly 1/3 of Episcopalians attend church on a typical weekend. The numbers are roughly comparable for Presbyterians and Methodists. Most Southern Baptists stay home on Sundays, too, church estimates show.

If only 35-40 percent of all church members are attending church on a typical weekend, it’s hard to imagine how 35-45 percent of all Americans could be worshipping on a weekly basis.

The reality — the gap between church attendance in the United States and Europe isn’t nearly as wide as we’ve been led to believe. Most Americans (like most Europeans) steer clear of churches on Sundays.

It’s ironic that so many Americans are willing to “lie” about their rate of church attendance. But my theory (and it’s similar to one of the researcher’s theories) is this. Pollsters ask the following question:

1.) Do you attend church every Sunday?

But the question people hear and answer is this one:

2.) Should you attend church every Sunday?

My theory: In the U.S., in 2010, perhaps 45 percent of Americans believe people should attend church, but only 50-67 percent of these people actually attend every week themselves. As a result, true weekly attendance rates are somewhere between 22.5 and 30 percent.

If my theory is correct, look for the following:
Church attendance will continue to slowly decline. But the percentage of Americans who are willing to admit they skip church could change far more rapidly. The result — it will look like church attendance is plummeting, even though actual church attendance is only decreasing slightly. This appearance of a sharp decline will have repercussions for the American church and for the wider culture.

Updated: December 3, 2010 — 4:35 pm

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  1. My take on all this is that it’s simpler than that. I think that among the evangelical churches, church attendance will tend to remain steady or increase, because these folks are marketing and putting on a show.

    Among the mainline churches, which don’t market much and usually don’t put on a very good show either, I think there will be some further decline, but for the most part, I think they’ve bottomed out. As I’ve said on here before, my theory is that people used to belong to the traditional churches for reasons that were largely non-religious. Most professional people a generation ago believed that they needed to belong to a church in order to be a good citizen, and most of them tended to be members of the mainline churches. Episcopal, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches in Lexington are still full of doctors and lawyers.

    Today, though, non one cares if his lawyer or doctor is an Episcopal vestryman or a Hindu. Therefore, few if any join the mainline churches these days for the social advantages. This leaves the True Believers, and frankly when you’ve got a theology that doesn’t exactly cry out for marching in the streets and retaking America, the way the evangelicals do, you’re not going to have many True Believers.

  2. Is anyone surprised that people are far more optimistic about their church attendance than experience bears out? People will also say they wash their hands every time they go to the bathroom. Our collective overconfidence is endemic, but I wouldn’t call it lying. Liars are aware of the falsehood of their statements. These people are unaware of their habits and behavior. They probaly used to attend church regularly and still consider themselves among the class of regular churchgoers, but they are not counting how many sundays they have missed.

  3. Plus, cheese, there’s the whole definitional thing. What does “regular” church attendance mean? Technically, I suppose, if one attends church every Easter and Christmas, that’s regular church attendance, and the old rule on “occasional conformity” was that if you took communion once a quarter, that was enough to qualify you to stand for Parliament.

    But I think cheese is correct that people truly do want to think that they are religious enough to suit at least their own definition of what being religious means, and often it doesn’t take much.

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