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The latest issue (Sep. 2007) of the Journal of the Scientific Study of Religion includes an article by Stanley Presser of the University of Maryland and Mark Chaves of Duke University about whether there has been a linear decline in church attendance.

Presser and Chaves take a different route to tracking religious attendance in their study. They think that when asked directly about attending church, people tend to overreport their presence in the pews. In this study, the two sociologists pay more attention to time-use studies in which individuals say what they did on days of the week to avoid asking participants directly about church attendance.

According to the time-use studies, Presser and Chaves conclude that religious attendance did decline slightly in the period between 1950 and 1990. Mainline Protestant and Catholic service attendance also declined over that period. According to the authors, there is currently no theory of religious change that accounts for periods of stability alternating with periods of decline.

However, Presser and Chaves determine that attendance has been stable (at about 25%) since the 1990s. That finding challenges the idea that our society is increasingly secular, or that the changes since the 1990s—technological improvements, the increase of scientific knowledge, and urbanization— have any impact on church attendance.

There may be no social scientific theory to explain a small decline during the period in question, when mainline Protestant denominations and Catholic attendance was also declining in the wake of Vatican II.

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Is Church Attendance Declining?
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