7 Startling Facts: An Up Close Look at Church Attendance in America

article_images/2.19.AttendanceInAmerica_522157053.jpg

Are people really attending church? What do the facts say?

1. Less than 20% of Americans regularly attend church — half of what the pollsters report.

While Gallup polls and other statisticians have turned in the same percentage — about 40% of the population — of average weekend church attendees for the past 70 years, a different sort of research paints quite a disparate picture of how many Americans attend a local church on any given Sunday.

Initially prompted to discover how church plants in America were really doing, Olson, director of church planting for the Evangelical Covenant Church (covchurch.org), began collecting data in the late “80s, gradually expanding his research to encompass overall attendance trends in the Church. In his study, he tracked the annual attendance of more than 200,000 individual Orthodox Christian churches (the accepted U.S. church universe is 330,000). To determine attendance at the remaining 100,000-plus Orthodox Christian churches, he used statistical models, which included multiplying a church”s membership number by the denomination”s membership-to-attendance ratio.

The Numbers

His findings reveal that the actual rate of church attendance from head counts is less than half of the 40% the pollsters report. Numbers from actual counts of people in Orthodox Christian churches (Catholic, mainline and evangelical) show that in 2004, 17.7% of the population attended a Christian church on any given weekend.

Another study published in 2005 in The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion by sociologists C. Kirk Hadaway and Penny Long Marler — known for their scholarly research on the Church — backs up his findings. Their report reveals that the actual number of people worshipping each week is closer to Olson”s 17.7% figure — 52 million people instead of the pollster-reported 132 million (40%).

“We knew that over the past 30 to 40 years, denominations had increasingly reported a decline in their numbers,” Marler says. “Even a still-growing denomination like the Southern Baptist Convention had reported slowed growth. Most of the mainline denominations were all reporting a net loss over the past 30 years. And at the same time, the Gallup polls had remained stable. It didn”t make sense.”

The Halo Effect

What Hadaway and Marler, along with Mark Chaves, author of the “National Congregations Study,” discovered was at play is what researchers call “the halo effect” — the difference between what people tell pollsters and what people actually do. Americans tend to over-report socially desirable behavior like voting and attending church and under-report socially undesirable behavior like drinking.

Gallup Poll Editor in Chief Frank Newport agrees that the halo effect factors in to poll results. During a Gallup telephone survey of a random sampling of about 1,000 Americans nationwide, interviewers ask respondents questions such as, “In the last seven days, did you attend a church service, excluding weddings and funerals?” to determine their church-going habits.

“When people try to reconstruct their own behavior, particularly more frequently occurring on-and-off behavior, it is more difficult, especially in a telephone interview scenario,” Newport says. But he stands behind Gallup”s 40% figure: “I”ve been reviewing [U.S. church attendance] carefully,” he says. “No matter how we ask the question to people, we get roughly 40% of Americans who present themselves as regular church attendees.” He adds, however, that if you were to freeze the United States on any Sunday morning, you may find fewer than 40% of the country”s adults actually in churches.

“Although about 40% of Americans are regular church attendees, it doesn”t necessarily mean 40% are in church on any given Sunday,” he explains. “The most regular church attendee gets sick or sleeps in. The other reason may be people who tell us they go to church but are worshipping in non-traditional ways, such as small groups, people meeting in gyms or school libraries.”

A Disconnect

In another study surveying the growth of U.S. Protestants, Marler and Hadaway discovered that while the majority of people they interviewed don”t belong to a local church, they still identify with their church roots. “Never mind the fact that they attend church less than 12 times a year,” Marler observes. “We estimate that 78 million Protestants are in that place. Ask most pastors what percentage of inactive members they have — they”ll say anything from 40–60%.”

Even with a broader definition of church attendance, classifying a regular attendee as someone who shows up at least three out of every eight Sundays, only 23–25% of Americans would fit this category. Olson notes that an additional million church attendees would increase the percentage from 17.7% to only 18%. “You”d have to find 80 million more people that churches forgot to count to get to 40%.”

Clearly, a disconnect between what Americans say and what they actually do has created a sense of a resilient church culture when, in fact, it may not exist.

Please Note: We reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive, uncivil and off-topic. Read a detailed description of our Comments Policy.
  • Lori

    HELP! — Please list your sources ala MLA, APA, etc.  I would like to quote some of these statistics, but need to credit the original researchers as well as the authors of this article. Specifically, what is the name of Thom Rainer’s 2002 study?  Does the “Denominational Differences” information come from this same study?

    • Pastor Bryan

      Amen Lori – I have been given so many stats at Church planting conferences and I just spent yesterday trying to find sources to bring these things up at my denominational district conference

  • Bradm

    Wow! So many great revelations. I’m going to have to read this a few times. Way to go churchleaders.com!

    Brad Murphy
    Lead Pastor
    http://www.eaglelifechurch.org

  • Errol Hale

    I am interested to learn if anyone can either verify or correct my observation regarding church attendance numbers.  While every pastor wants to see as many of his flock in church each week (a good indicator of spiritual health for the people), I cannot find anything in church history until the mid to late 20th century where attendance became such a consuming topic among church leaders.  There have been mega-churches in history, but I can find nothing historically that indicates numbers as being the litmus test to determine a church’s health or a pastors effectiveness.  Has it ever, like in our modern consumer culture been a topic among laymen–one by which they choose a church and judge its viability?  It appears to me to be a recent cultural phenomena. Am I missing something?

    • Pastor Bryan

      Rather than it being a measure of vitality (though it can be – consider the 3000 and the 5000 in the Book of Acts) try thinking of the impetus for this discussion in this light… we have lost over 100,000 Churches in the last 10 years! And they close because no one is attending. If people were attending they would not be closed. Now of course the question of health can be, “Why are people not attending?” But nevertheless people are trying to sound an alarm – a Clarion Call – “The Churches are dying and closing; here are the statistics…”

      Probably the main reason Churches are closing is that they have turned into Churches providing services for the people who attend them rather than as outstations of mission to reach a dying world. Even our growing Churches are mostly growing through transfer – in other words they indirectly say, ‘Did you just move here? Come worship with us.” or “We have more to offer, come worship with us.” So, as for both the growing and the shrinking Churches, the culture has become non-Christian around them and they simply don’t know how to be missionaries.

      This is why our Church has teamed up with 3 other local Churches to start a local missionary society (for the Churches to take local missionary initiatives) and school of mission (to train Christian students at a local secular college how to do missions here in the US).
      I think that you can google it with “google sites freeschoolofmission”

      • Dr. Clayton

        By the way, your note that the US church has lost 100,000 churches in the last 10 years must be overstated, because there are only about 330,000 total churches in the US. Also, Eddie Gibbs notes in a recent book that presently there are more churches being planted in the US than at any other time in our history. If we are closing churches that are culturally out of step, and opening young and vibrant ones, maybe the future of the church is not so bleak…

  • Eliz

    Errol Hale,
    Well as you may already know there is not really a correct way to observe such facts. But there are some techniques that can be used. Pastor James Macdonald has some good resources, as of late , The Vertical Church .. Its a book and he also has materials for church leaders.He is on tour right now, if you have the opportunity to attend. These materials are free for leaders who attend. Also Pastor Andy Stanley from North Point Communtiy church has a great variety of ways for the congregation to test themselves and if they openly wanted to share that with you or among themselves. It helps them understand themselves and moreover there attendance and commintment, not only as a church but to God. Look those up.. I hope and pray that this information serves you well..

  • Pastor Bryan

    I spent my whole day yesterday trying to find sources for statistics that I have heard at numerous Church planting conferences. This article turns out to be the best one I have read for revealing the disparity between what we all have seen and the Gallup and Barna numbers. And it gives sources; so, ‘Bravo!’ But the sourcing or annotation could still be improved. With good sources we can take these things up and present them at our conferences and our Churches – the message will multiply.

    Some of the stats I have been told include:

    – 87% of evangelical Churches spend 100% of their budgets internally on themselves.
    – Around 1990 the attrition rate for the faith of people who spent their teen years in youth group was about 46% but in 2010 it grew to about 82%.
    – We have seen a net loss of 100,000 Churches in a recent 10 year period.
    – We expect to see a net loss of another 100,000 Churches in the 10 years that follow.
    – There are less Christians and less Churches in every single county in the US in a recent 10 year period.
    – Church plants have a conversion growth rate of about 7% while established Churches have a conversion growth rate of less than a 1/2%.
    – 80% of our Churches are in plateau or decline but if you take a longer period the whole 80% are actually in decline.
    – Of the 20% that are growing 18 percentiles are through transfers while the remaining 2 percentiles are through conversion and these are mostly ethnic or immigrant Churches.

    I have heard these at various conferences – I would love sources for them if they are true. So by all means – please reply with any sources you may have. I have already looked at the Gallup and Census material.

    Thanks.

  • Pastor Bryan

    Observation:
    Regarding Number 4. Mid-sized churches are shrinking; the smallest and largest churches are growing. 1994 to 2004, the country’s smallest (attendance 1–49 – 16.4%) and largest churches (2,000-plus- 21.5%) did (Olson p. 52) see graph on page 52). This is greater than national population growth of 12.2%. But mid-sized churches (100–299 – avg size 124- declined 1%).

    Personal Note: Keep in mind that Churches that cease to exist cannot report – so smaller Churches naturally have their numbers skewed upwards.

    For Example: My District of my particular denomination has in the neighborhood of 20 of our 160+ Churches that we expect to close in the next 5 years and another 40 in the next 5 years after that. If 10 of our smaller Churches reverse trends (even temporarily) and grow by 15 people they will have a 50% growth rate (or more) and if 10 stay the same while 50 close – the research could show a 25% growth rate for Churches under 50!

    • Dr. Clayton

      And one wonders how many of the “mid-sized” churches are shrinking into the smaller size, thus also causing “growth” in the smaller category. In other words, if all the churches were loosing ground to the “mega church,” the smaller church category would still show a bump for awhile. Unfortunately, at the present time aproximately half of all Christians now attend a church that runs 2,000+.

  • Hermes Mercury

    Very even handed, Thank you. I’m only a visitor here. I am not Christian and have no interest in being — to quote a bromide — been there, done that, have the t-shirt (still, literally), but I appreciate the honesty and even handedness, it rarely exists in religious circles on something this divisive. For what its worth, I think that we will match Europe in religious observance within a few decades. The hatred and phobia evidenced by so many Christian leaders (even now in this election season) against “out groups” like gays will finish off the historic willingness to associate with any “orthodox” religious group among more and more youth — and that resistance to reality and learning will, I think come close to ending the faith, which is sad, because it has added much to humanity. I know that NONE of my son’s friends have remained in their parents’ churches (most who were religious were evangelical) and the most often cited reason is that they won’t tolerate bigotry against gays being dressed up as religion, they have gay friends (or in some cases, they are gay), some have become outright atheists, and I do not believe will be back, others have become “spiritual” which is something I’ve also seen with more liberal Muslims, and a few have made the leap to other faiths (primarily Wicca) I do not understand the self and other destructive impulse that many religious people have, but I recognize it. Unfortunately, sooner or later, and I think sooner, critical mass in the contraction will be reached, and it will sink to cult status, no matter how much growth some leaders think they can magically manage.

    Kind thoughts to all.

    • mytruejoy

      while the intolerance to other beliefs may be a small factor in church attendance declining…. I really think that’s a minor minor issue. The real issue is the intensely boring service in most churches. Even churches that are interactively involving (versus boring lecture based… “we sit, you talk at us”), eventually are transformed by power hungry leaders that demand a return to lecture based boredom.

  • mytruejoy

    I just came from a church service in a mid-sized church. It was so boring that I’m not sure I’ll go back. The hymns were very old fashioned, with no energy, and the sermon had no humor, and was too long. The most eye-opening concept is that I’m 62 ! Do you realize how boring most youth would have found these services? The other part that’s so hard to wrap my head around is that I and Billions like me have an intense longing to experience the presence of Christ in the Church. Why not an interactive discussion group & more Christ bringing music instead of such a boring lecture based presentation. Is the present type of church service Satan’s way of destroying our hope to relate to God in a real way?
    The problem in the churches is the upper management who can’t change.

article_images/Thanksgiving_Preaching_423214903.jpg

WATCH: A Brief History of Thanksgiving

John Luhmann explains what we really know about the first Thanksgiving.