Reflections

A Magazine of Theological and Ethical Inquiry from Yale Divinity School

Did You Go to Church Last Week?

Author: 
Ray Waddle

Gallup has been asking Americans some version of that question regularly for decades. A 2015 Gallup report shows results state by state. Utah scored highest: 51 percent of Utahns said they attend worship services every week.

Southerners reported high percentages of weekly worship too – Mississippi (47 percent), North Carolina (40 percent), and Georgia (39 percent), for instance.

Attendance was notably lower on the two coasts. Vermont was lowest at 17 percent, followed by New Hampshire and Maine (20 percent), and Massachusetts (22 percent). Washington and Oregon were at 24 percent.

These numbers are always self-reported – how accurate are they? This is a matter of debate year after year.

Gallup says self-reports are estimates, not necessarily precise, but they provide insight into how Americans view their underlying religiosity.

Reporting on research in 2012, NPR said Americans overstate their worship habits by about 50 percent, and we do it more than people in other countries. Thus, the often-reported national worship- attendance rate of 40-plus percent is probably closer to 30 percent.

The self-reporting bias isn’t a devious deception, researchers argue. Many people, when asked how often they go to church, interpret the question to mean, “Are you the sort of person who attends,” according to sociologist Philip Brenner, who has examined data for this and other countries. Americans have been overreporting worship attendance since the 1970s, he told NPR.

The exaggerated numbers suggest that many Americans see themselves as more religious than a survey question about actual worship attendance can convey.

Meanwhile, people who don’t go to religious services give different reasons for that – they’re too busy, or they have work conflicts, health problems, or no transportation, according to a 2012 Pew Research Center study. Others cite conflict with religion itself as the reason – either they disagree with the beliefs of church leaders or they don’t feel it is crucial to attend. In that survey, 9 percent gave no particular reason for their lack of attendance.

Issue Title: 
New Voyages: Church Today and Tomorrow
Issue Year: 
2015