Americas

Just Why Do Americans Attend Church?

Those who don't attend have variety of reasons for their behavior

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- More than 40% of Americans claim to attend church or synagogue regularly, and only about 15% say they never attend. Easter is one of two times a year, along with Christmas, when pews are filled to capacity in many churches, bringing to mind the question: Just why do Americans attend church?

Researchers have spent a good deal of time over the years investigating American churchgoing behavior, developing theories that range from the sociological benefit of religious ritual in promoting group solidarity to the practical benefits derived from participation in community social gatherings. And, of course, there are those who argue that the reason for church attendance is quite simple: It is the rational response of humans who feel the need to worship a real and powerful God.

Researchers know a lot about the types of people who are most likely to attend worship services in the United States today. There is a strong relationship between age and church attendance, with older Americans much more likely to attend than younger Americans. There is a strong gender effect, with women of all ages more likely than men to attend. There are region-specific effects, with residents of Southern states and of Utah much more likely to attend than New England or West Coast residents. There is a race effect, with black Americans much more likely to attend church services on average than white Americans. And there is an effect within specific religious denominations, with members of evangelical non-Catholic Christian denominations and Mormons more likely to attend than those who identify with traditional mainline Protestant denominations.

These relationships can lead to inferential hypotheses attempting to explain why people attend church. As a prominent example, it appears reasonable to hypothesize that older Americans are more likely to be religious and attend church because they are more immediately facing the prospect of death. There has been speculation as well about a possible evolutionary basis for the gender gap in church attendance.

To come at the fascinating issue of church attendance in a slightly different way, a recent Gallup Panel survey asked Americans about their usual church-attending behavior, and followed up with an open-ended question asking them to explain their attendance or lack thereof in their own words.

There are a number of ways to measure church attendance. This particular survey used the following scale:

How often do you attend church or synagogue -- At least once a week, almost every week, about once a month, seldom, or never?

 

Once
a week

Almost
every
week

About
once a
month

Seldom

Never

No
opin-
ion

2007 Mar 26-29

35

10

10

28

16

*

* Less than 0.5%

The responses to this question in this survey are roughly in line with Gallup trends. The average responses for this measure for all of 2006 were 31% reporting attending once a week, 12% almost every week, 15% about once a month, 28% seldom, and 14% never.

Those who reported attending at least once a month -- 55% of the current sample -- were asked to explain why they attend.

(Asked of adults who attend church services at least monthly) What is the most important reason why you attend church or synagogue? [OPEN-ENDED]

BASED ON 562 ADULTS WHO ATTEND CHURCH AT LEAST MONTHLY

 

2007 Mar 26-29

%

For spiritual growth and guidance

23

Keeps me grounded/inspired

20

It's my faith

15

To worship God

15

The fellowship of other members/The community

13

Believe in God/Believe in religion

12

Brought up that way/A family value/Tradition

12

 

Other

4

No reason in particular

1

No opinion

*

 

* Less than 0.5%

NOTE: Percentages add to more than 100% due to multiple responses.

Most of the explanations churchgoers give for church attendance are straightforward and in line with what might be expected. Some Americans indicate attending church for explicitly religious reasons ("to worship God," "it's my faith," "believe in God"), while others have a somewhat more general, spiritual rationale ("for spiritual growth," "keeps me grounded and inspired").

Sociologists have theorized over the years that Americans may attend church because such behavior serves explicit social functions, i.e., the ability to socialize with other members of the community, making business contacts, developing friends, and maintaining one's presentation of self and status in the community. Those reasons may be accurate in some ways, but they are not explicitly acknowledged when churchgoers are asked to self-report on their reasons for their behavior. Only 13% of churchgoers provide this type of rationale in the current survey.

Women are more frequent church attenders than men, but the reasons men and women give do not differ significantly. Women are slightly more likely to mention that they attend because of a need to keep grounded and inspired, and for social reasons, but the differences are not large.

(Asked of adults who attend church services at least monthly) What is the most important reason why you attend church or synagogue? [OPEN-ENDED]

2007 Mar 26-29

Men

Women

%

%

For spiritual growth and guidance

24

23

Keeps me grounded/inspired

14

23

It's my faith

18

14

To worship God

12

17

The fellowship of other members/The community

9

16

Believe in God/Believe in religion

15

9

Brought up that way/A family value/Tradition

14

10

This table looks at differences between the largest two groups of churchgoers in the sample: Catholics and non-Catholic Protestants (including those who say they are Christian but do not specify any Christian denomination).

(Asked of adults who attend church services at least monthly) What is the most important reason why you attend church or synagogue? [OPEN-ENDED]

 

2007 Mar 26-29

 

Protestant/
Christian

Catholic

%

%

For spiritual growth and guidance

25

17

Keeps me grounded/inspired

16

28

It's my faith

14

21

To worship God

16

13

The fellowship of other members/The community

17

3

Believe in God/Believe in religion

13

11

Brought up that way/A family value/Tradition

11

15

The biggest difference between Catholics and non-Catholic Christians in self-reported reasons for church attendance occurs in the area of fellowship. Few Catholics mention that they go to church in order to have the fellowship of other worshippers or because of a sense of community, while this rationale is given by 17% of non-Catholic Christians. Catholics, on the other hand, are slightly more likely to say they attend in order to be kept grounded and inspired, and because it's their faith.

Reasons for Not Attending Church

Americans who say they attend church only seldom or never -- a little over 40% of the adult population -- give a variety of reasons for their non-attendance.

(Asked of adult who seldom or never attend church services) What is the most important reason why you do not attend church or synagogue? [OPEN-ENDED]

BASED ON 439 ADULTS WHO SELDOM/NEVER ATTEND CHURCH

2007 Mar 26-29

%

THOUGHT-OUT, RATIONAL REASONS

 

 

Don't agree with organized religion/
what they preach

24

Don't believe in going to church

16

Atheist/Don't believe in God

10

Church wants/asks for too much money

3

 

PRACTICAL OR "DEFAULT" REASONS

 

 

Don't have time/Don't get around to it

21

Don't have a church I connect with

9

I'm lazy

6

Poor health/Disabled

2

Family members are different religions

1

 

Other

5

No reason in particular

6

No opinion

3

There are two groups of reasons why Americans seldom or never attend church. The first is what can be called "rational" reasons, or reasons based on more explicit decisions or patterns of belief. These include such things as disagreement with organized religion and what it preaches, a basic lack of belief in going to church, and a straightforward statement of being an atheist or not believing in God.

The second set of reasons are practical, and don't by themselves signify any specific opposition to attending church, but rather an acknowledgment that respondents' life situations get in the way of their going to religious services. These include such basic responses as "don't have time" or "don't get around to it," not having a church they like, being lazy, and a few other specific reasons.

Bottom Line

There are no great surprises in these self-reported explanations for churchgoing behavior. Americans who frequently attend church services tend to mention either an explicitly religious rationale for their attendance ("to worship God") or one that deals with the spiritual dimension ("to seek spirituality or inspiration"). A relatively small number of churchgoers say they seek a sense of community or social interaction with their fellow worshippers.

Those who seldom or never attend church can be split into two groups: those who have fairly well-developed reasons for not attending ("I don't believe in God," "I don't agree with what organized religion teaches") and those who are willing to admit that they just don't get around to it, don't have time, or are just plain "lazy."

Those who study religious behavior often focus on more underlying reasons for church attendance, such as habit, socialization, need for community, business, development, and validation of one's status and standing in the community. These reasons are infrequently given by church attenders themselves, suggesting that the explanations attenders give are more accurate, more easily at hand cognitively, or more normatively acceptable.

Survey Methods

Results for this panel study are based on telephone interviews with 1,006 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted March 26-29, 2007. Respondents were drawn from Gallup's nationally representative household panel, which was originally recruited through random selection methods. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

Gallup http://www.gallup.com/poll/27124/just-why-americans-attend-church.aspx Gallup World Headquarters, 901 F Street, Washington, D.C., 20001, U.S.A +1 202.715.3030