By Bob Smietana
During the season of Lent, some Americans give up chocolate or another favorite food. Others dump guilty pleasures like social media or binge-watching television.
But most give up Lent.
Three-quarters of Americans (76 percent) say they don’t typically observe Lent, according to a new survey from Nashville-based Lifeway Research.
Unlike other Christian traditions like celebrating Easter or Christmas, Lent seems to lack crossover appeal, says Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research. It remains a religious event, he says, rather than one that appeals to a broader public.
That’s in part, he suspects, because Lent focuses on giving things up in order to gain spiritual benefits in preparation for Easter. There’s no social benefit like giving gifts or getting together with family. It’s a religious tradition that remains focused on personal devotion, says McConnell.
“Lent is not about having your best life now,” McConnell says. “Those who observe it believe they are giving up things they want in order to focus on what God wants. There’s little popular appeal in that.”
Lent is not just for Catholics
Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday (March 1) and ends during Holy Week, is traditionally seen as a time of preparation for Easter. Part of that preparation often includes fasting as a form of spiritual discipline—a practice that dates back to the early church. Lent traditionally lasts for 40 days (excluding Sundays), a time frame established after the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D.
Catholics (61 percent) remain most likely to observe Lent, according to Lifeway’s survey. Protestants (20 percent) and those with evangelical beliefs (28 percent) are less likely.
Forty-three percent of those who attend church at least once a month observe Lent. That includes 82 percent of Catholics who regularly attend service as well as 30 percent of Protestants.
McConnell says the popularity of Lent among those with evangelical beliefs is surprising. Lent is often associated with Catholics and Mainline Protestants from more liturgical denominations. But it holds appeal for evangelicals as well, he says.
Americans give up food, bad habits for Lent
Lifeway asked Americans who observe Lent about the details of how they observe this Christian tradition.
Fasting from a favorite food or beverage (57 percent) and going to church (57 percent) are the most common ways to observe Lent. Additional prayer (39 percent), giving to others (38 percent) or fasting from a bad habit (35 percent) are also popular. Fasting from a favorite activity is less common (23 percent).
Fasting from a favorite food or beverage is more common out West (62 percent) than in the Northeast (42 percent). Young Americans, those 18 to 24, who observe Lent are more likely to choose this option (86 percent) than those over 65 (43 percent). Catholics (64 percent) are more likely give up a food or drink than Protestants (43 percent).
Midwesterners observing Lent are more like to pray more (52 percent) than those in the Northeast (29 percent) or South (35 percent). Those who attend services at least once a month are more likely to pray more (55 percent) than those who don’t (18 percent).
Hispanic Americans (34 percent) are more likely to give up a favorite habit than white Americans (17 percent). They are also more likely to give up a bad habit (50 percent) than white Americans (30 percent) or those from other ethnicities (11 percent).
Catholics (46 percent) are more likely to give to others while observing Lent than Protestants (32 percent). Those who go to church at least once a month (49 percent) are more likely to give to others than those who don’t attend church as often (22 percent).
Those with evangelical beliefs (71 percent) are more likely to go to church during Lent than those without evangelical beliefs (54 percent). Those who attend church at least once a month go to church more during Lent (76 percent) than those who don’t (32 percent).
“There’s a lot more to Lent than giving things up,” says McConnell. “Americans who observe Lent also take other steps—like praying, giving, and going to church more—to practice their faith.”
Bob is the former senior writer for Lifeway Research. In September 2018, he joined Religion News Service, where he currently serves as a national writer.
Lifeway Research conducted the study Sept. 27 – Oct. 1, 2016. The survey was conducted using the web-enabled KnowledgePanel®, a probability-based panel designed to be representative of the U.S. population. Initially, participants are chosen scientifically by a random selection of telephone numbers and residential addresses. Persons in selected households are then invited by telephone or by mail to participate in the web-enabled KnowledgePanel®. For those who agree to participate, but do not already have Internet access, GfK provides at no cost a laptop and ISP connection.
Sample stratification and weights were used for gender, age, race/ethnicity, region, metro/non-metro, education and income to reflect the most recent U.S. Census data. The completed sample is 1,000 surveys. The sample provides 95 percent confidence that the sampling error does not exceed plus or minus 3.1 percent. Margins of error are higher in sub-groups.