By Lisa Green
Although most Americans believe church is on the decline, the overwhelming majority say they find value in attending.
A new survey from Nashville-based Lifeway Research reveals an upbeat attitude toward churchgoing. Two-thirds of Americans think attendance is admirable, and nearly 9 in 10 call it acceptable. Only 11 percent consider church useless.
Even nonreligious people have favorable opinions. Eighty percent believe church attendance is acceptable, and 43 percent label it admirable. Just 29 percent call it useless.
Yet more Americans believe the church is dying than thriving, according to the Lifeway study. Researchers asked 1,000 Americans about their views in a phone survey from Sept. 19-28, 2014.
“Americans have a much more optimistic view of the people and practice of attending church than they do of the health of the church,” said Scott McConnell vice president of Lifeway Research. “Church attendance is much like regular exercise and driving the speed limit. People do not live out everything they admire.”
Confirming McConnell’s assertion that Americans’ churchgoing is at odds with their behavior, even on Easter, traditionally the best-attended Sunday of the year, large segments of the population say they don’t plan to attend, previous Lifeway research has found.
And despite their professed fondness for church, Americans are more likely to believe attendance is declining (55 percent) or dying (42 percent) than growing (36 percent) or thriving (38 percent).
Their attitudes reflect the mixed trends of the past 50 years. While many mainline denominations have lost membership, some have grown. And while more people are Christian today than in 1970, Christians make up a smaller share of the burgeoning population, according to a study from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
27 percent of Americans believe church attendance is outdated, including:
- 42 percent of nonreligious
- 31 percent of Catholics
- 34 percent of 25 to 34 year olds
Those young adults, part of the Millennial generation, are also more likely than their elders to describe church attendance as unusual (26 percent).
While 54 percent of those over 65 describe churchgoing as an expectation, that viewpoint is in the minority for every other age group.
There were significant gender differences:
- 69 percent of women versus 63 percent of men view attendance as admirable
- 9 percent of women consider church useless compared to 14 percent of men
- 40 percent of women say the church is growing as opposed to 32 percent of men
- 41 percent of women say the church is thriving, but only 34 percent of men
Race and ethnicity also played a role.
- Most Hispanics believe going to church is expected (55 percent), but attendance is considered useless by 1 in 5—almost double the rate of the population as a whole.
- Whites are among the least likely to consider church useless (8 percent), but 60 percent believe the church is declining.
- Most African-Americans believe the church is growing (55 percent) and thriving (56 percent). They also describe church attendance as common (74 percent) and popular (61 percent) more than any other group.
For more on the story, visit Lifeway Research.
LISA GREEN is a freelance writer in Nashville, Tenn.