How many Americans go to church regularly?
If you listen to the answers provided by major opinion research firms, the answer usually hovers around 40%. (National Opinion Research Center: 38%; Institute for Social Research's World Values: 44%; Barna: 41%; National Election Studies: 40%; Gallup: 41%.)
But in recent years this consensus has been challenged. It seems that it's more accurate to say that 40% of Americans claim to attend church regularly.
In 1998, sociologist Stanley Presser at the University of Michigan--whose "research focuses on questionnaire design and testing, the accuracy of survey responses, and ethical issues stemming from the use of human subjects"--co-authored a study entitled: "Data Collection Mode and Social Desirability Bias in Self-Reported Religious Attendance," American Sociological Review, v. 63 (1998): 137-145 (with L. Stinson). Comparing diaries with actual attendance, they made the estimate that the actual percentage of Americans attending church from the mid-1960's to the 90's was about 26%.
One of the problem comes in how the question is asked in a poll. Different questions yield different results. For example, in a survey you might ask, "What did you do last weekend?" listing for the person a number of possible activities, including church-going. This will yield a very different response than if you asked, "Did you attend church last Sunday?"
One factor is that people often answer according to what they think someone like them wants or ought to do. So people tend to overreport on the number of sexual partners they've had and how much money they give to charity, and tend to underreport on illegal drug use and the like. Hence, church attendance is often inflated.
In 1998 C. Kirk Hadaway and P.L. Marler published an article in the Christian Century entitled, Did You Really Go To Church This Week? Behind the Poll Data where they examine many of these factors. The authors focused on individual counties in the US and Canada, surveying actual church/synagogue attendance and comparing it with random surveys they were conducting. They found that actual church attendance was about half the rate indicated by national public opinion polls. Their estimate for US actual church attendance is around 20%.
Dave Olson, director of church planting for the Evangelical Covenant Church, surveying only Christian churches (i.e., evangelical, mainline, and Catholic) has come up with a similar number. The percentage of Americans regularly attending church is 18.7%.
Olson has collected his findings in an eye-opening slide-show entitled Twelve Surprising Facts about the US Church. The 12 points cannot be copied and pasted, so I've reprinted them below, along with links to his charts and maps.
Read the entire article on the Between Two Worlds Blog (new window will open).