A study of U.S. churchgoers examines several reasons some give for skipping services at least occasionally.
By Aaron Earls
Jesus said the gates of hell will not prevail against His church, but sleet and hail will keep many churchgoers out of the pew on a Sunday. In fact, some may even skip to get a little extra sleep or watch their favorite team.
A Lifeway Research study of U.S. adults who attend a religious service at a Protestant or non-denominational church at least monthly finds several reasons some will miss church at least once a year.
Respondents were asked how often they would skip a weekly worship service for six different scenarios—to avoid severe weather, to enjoy an outdoor activity in good weather, to get extra sleep, to meet friends, to avoid traveling when it’s raining or to watch sports.
One in 10 Protestant churchgoers (11%) say they would never skip for any of these reasons. Twice as many (22%) say they would never skip due to the five options besides severe weather situations.
“Churchgoers are not on autopilot. Each week they are faced with a choice of whether to attend church, and there is more than one tradeoff when it comes to this decision,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research.
Severe and sunny weather-related absences
Most regular churchgoers say they would miss a weekly worship service at least once a year to avoid traveling in severe weather (77%), to enjoy an outdoor activity (55%) or to get some extra sleep (54%). Half (50%) would do so to meet a friend or group of friends. Fewer say they’d skip to not have to travel when it was raining (43%) or to watch a sporting event or their favorite team (42%).
“Sometimes churchgoers conclude it’s safer to skip church and not be on the roads,” said McConnell. “But many will also skip church if they feel they have a better option.”
More than 3 in 4 churchgoers (77%) would skip church if there were snow, ice, a tornado watch or other severe weather, including 23% who would do so once a year, 39% a few times a year and 15% many times a year. Almost a quarter (23%) say they would never intentionally miss a worship service for this.“Sometimes churchgoers conclude it’s safer to skip church and not be on the roads. But many will also skip church if they feel they have a better option.” — @smcconn Click To Tweet
On the opposite end of the weather spectrum, most churchgoers (55%) say they would miss weekly worship at least occasionally to enjoy an outdoor activity during nice weather. For 15%, they’d do so once a year, 22% say a few times a year and 18% would skip many times a year. Still, 45% say they’d never miss church to go outside during good weather.
Other reasons for skipping services
More than half (54%) of churchgoers say they’d miss church to stay in bed a little longer, including 10% who say they would skip once a year to get some extra sleep, 26% a few times a year and 18% many times a year. Sleep is never a reason to miss for 46% of U.S. churchgoers.
Churchgoers are even split on missing a service to meet friends. Half (50%) would do so, including 17% once a year, 22% a few times a year and 12% many times a year. Half (50%) say they’d never skip a weekly worship service to meet a friend or group of friends.
Most U.S. Protestant churchgoers say rain won’t keep them away. But 43% say they may miss church to avoid traveling during rainy weather. For 13%, they’d miss once a year, 20% say a few times a year and 9% say many times a year. Almost 3 in 5 (57%) would never skip a worship service because it was raining.
Despite major sporting events often happening on Sundays, watching sports is the least likely of the six reasons churchgoers say would cause them to skip church. Slightly more than 2 in 5 (42%) say they’d miss a worship service to watch a sporting event or their favorite team, including 11% who say once a year, 17% a few times a year and 14% many times a year. For 58% of U.S. Protestant churchgoers, sports would never cause them to miss church.
“There is a good reason some churches are in the habit of noting the weather conditions when they record their worship attendance,” said McConnell. “The weather, both good and bad, is part of the decision-making process for many churchgoers.”
Different groups, different reasons
Some churchgoers are more likely to skip for specific reasons. Churchgoers in the Midwest are the least likely to say they’ll miss many times a year to watch sports (8%). Men (46%) are more likely to say they’d stay home to watch their favorite team at least once a year than women (39%), while women (47%) are more likely to miss because of rain than men (37%).
Those under 50 are more likely to miss worship services to enjoy an outdoor activity and meet friends than those 50 and older. In addition, the younger a churchgoer is, the more likely they are to stay in bed and sleep on Sunday mornings at least occasionally.The younger a churchgoer is, the more likely they are to sleep on Sunday mornings instead of attending a worship service at least occasionally. Click To Tweet
Perhaps unsurprisingly, churchgoers who attend four times a month or more are less likely to say they’d ever miss for any of the six options than those who attend one to three times a month. Also, evangelicals by belief are less likely to say they would skip for any of the listed reasons than those without such theological convictions.
Additionally, the oldest group of churchgoers (65+) and those of other ethnicities (not white, Hispanic or African American) are frequently among the least likely to say they’d miss for those reasons.
Denominationally, Presbyterians are among the least likely to say they’d ever miss church for any of the reasons. Meanwhile, Methodist churchgoers are among the most likely to say they would skip at least once a year for each of the six reasons. Those who attend Restorationist movement congregations are also among the most likely to miss services for five of the six options at least occasionally.
For more information, view the complete report.
Aaron is the senior writer at Lifeway Research.
The online survey of 1,002 Americans was conducted Sept. 19-29, 2022, using a national pre-recruited panel. Respondents were screened to include those who identified as Protestant/non-denominational and attend religious services at least once a month. Quotas and slight weights were used to balance gender, age, region, ethnicity, education and religion to reflect the population more accurately.
The completed sample is 1,002 surveys. The sample provides 95% confidence that the sampling error from the panel does not exceed plus or minus 3.3%. This margin of error accounts for the effect of weighting. Margins of error are higher in sub-groups.
Evangelical Beliefs are defined using the National Association of Evangelicals/Lifeway Research Evangelical Beliefs Research Definition based on respondent beliefs. Respondents are asked their level of agreement with four separate statements using a four-point, forced choice scale (strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, strongly disagree). Those who strongly agree with all four statements are categorized as having Evangelical Beliefs:
- The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.
- It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
- Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.
- Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.