Did you go to church this week? That's the question that Gallup pollsters have been asking Americans for more than 75 years. And each year since 1939, about 40 percent of those polled have said yes. (The actual question: "Did you yourself happen to attend church or synagogue in the last seven days?")
That doesn't mean that, on any given Sunday, 118 million Americans (40 percent of the population) will actually be in church. According to sociologists who study religion, the actual number of people in church each week in the United States is significantly lower than the Gallup Poll indicates. Just how low is a matter of some debate.
"We ask the question because George Gallup did, so it's helpful to follow the trend," says Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll. But the results "should not be taken as a precise indicator of actual churchgoing behavior." Newport says that while polls can accurately track opinions, using them to ascertain behaviorlike weekly church attendance is much more difficult.
Kirk Hadaway, an Episcopal Church researcher, argues that the actual attendance rate is 20.4 percent, about half the Gallup figure. Hadaway co-authored, with Penny Marler of Samford University, a report last fall on a "count-based" estimate of church attendance in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.
On the surface, Hadaway says, counting the number of Americans who attend church seems simple. "If you know how many churches there are in America, and if you know the average attendance of those churches," he says, "then you can come up with a total number of people attending worship of some kind."
There are just two problems with that approach, he adds. First, there's no official, exhaustive list of U.S. congregations, and, second, not all congregations track attendance.
For their recent study, Hadaway and Marler estimated the number of churches in the United States using a combination of sources. They combined a known figurethe number of Catholic (21,975) and mainline (81,183) churcheswith data from the National Congregations Study (NCS) done by Mark Chaves of the University of Arizona and the National Opinion Research Center. That NCS study told researchers the expected proportions for each category of United States churchesCatholic, mainline, conservative/evangelical, and so onallowing them to estimate the number of churches in the United States at 331,000 for the year 2000. (That number is slightly higher than the 320,827 congregations listed by the respected Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches.)
Researchers then used data from U.S. Congregations, a research group sponsored, in part, by the Lilly Endowment and by the Pulpit and Pew Project, along with attendance counts from mainline and Catholic churches to compute average attendance. It ranged from 109 for mainline congrations to 853 for Roman Catholic parishes. The average church attendance was 161.9 people.
Dave Olson, director of church planting for the Evangelical Covenant Church and director of TheAmericanChurch.org, believes Hadaway and Marler's figures are accurate. Olson's research, drawing from attendance data collected from 200,000 churches, reaches a similar conclusion. He believes that Hadaway and Marler have shown that a significantly smaller number of Americans "are participating in the most basic Christian practicesthe weekly gathering for worship, teaching, prayer, and fellowship."
"Christ spoke the words of life, and a church service is the most common place that people hear those words," Olson says. "When fewer people attend church, fewer people hear the words of life. Fewer people hear the gospel for the first time. Fewer take the sacraments. Fewer children hear of God's love for them. Fewer teenagers find a listening ear. Fewer broken lives are put back together. It's a matter that should concern all Christians."