Religion in the United States exists in many forms, but worship attendance at a local congregation is its most traditional and visible expression. The institutional character of religion is a legacy of Protestant colonization and Catholic immigration. Its diversity and voluntary nature, on the other hand, are the products of a unique experiment in political democracy. In the United States, religion is not imposed by virtue of citizenship; it is a choice.
Americans attend churches and other types of congregations (synagogues, mosques and temples). When people say they "go to church," the reference could include a committee meeting, a special concert, a day-care program, a sports event, a troop meeting, or a support group. Ordinarily, however, attendance means (and is measured by) participation in regularly scheduled ritual observances common to a particular religious tradition. Protestant Americans go to a Sunday worship service; Catholic Americans attend a weekend mass, and Jewish Americans, Saturday morning temple.
The "Churching" of America
If institutional involvement in congregations is used as a measure of religiosity, Americans are quite religious. According to Gallup Polls, two-thirds of the adult population claim to be church or synagogue members and report attendance within the past six months. Attendance in most industrialized nations is considerably lower.
Religious involvement was not always so high in the United States. Indeed, at the time of the American Revolution, only about 17 percent of Americans were church or synagogue members. Despite the popular image of a colonial America populated by pious Pilgrims, Roger Finke and Rodney Stark argue that "Boston's taverns were probably fuller on Saturday night than were its churches on Sunday morning."
The rapid growth and westward movement of the American population created difficulties for churches organized around the European model of stable, geographic parishes. While once-established denominations like Congregationalists and Episcopalians struggled to retain adherents, circuit-riding Methodist preachers and a series of frontier revivals stirred religious enthusiasm and industry in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. With clear evangelistic and missionary aims and without the burden of an educated clergy or cumbersome bureaucracies, "upstart" Protestant churches—especially the Baptist and Pentecostal variety—flourished well into the twentieth century.
Immigration during the last quarter of the nineteenth century slowed the pace, if not the pattern, of the churching of America. At first, there were more Catholic immigrants than established parishes could handle. Also, many immigrants hailed from nominally Catholic nations with lower norms for mass attendance. Through the establishment of ethnic parishes and evangelistic efforts remarkably similar to Protestant revivalism, Catholic adherence and attendance equaled (and later exceeded) that of the Protestant majority.
Since the late 1930s, national attendance trends were based on data from public opinion polls. In 1955 and 1958 Gallup Polls reported that 49 percent of Americans said they had attended church in the previous seven days. No higher poll-based rate of church attendance was reported before or since the 1950s. In 1965 the polls reported a weekly attendance rate of 47 percent and by 1970 the rate had declined to 40 percent.
Why attendance fell after the 1950s is a matter of dispute, but three factors contributed most to the decline. First, the greatest drop in attendance was among Roman Catholics in the years following Vatican II. The changes instituted by the Church gave many Catholics the impression that attendance at mass was voluntary. A second factor related to the overall decline in worship attendance was an expansion of the nonreligiously affiliated population during the 1960s and 1970s—a period when persons claiming "no religion" expanded from around 2 percent to 10 percent of the American population. Finally, there was an erosion of attendance among educated, middle-class young adults from mainline Protestant denominations. After college, many never found their way back to the church.
Church Attendance Today
According to most polls, weekly attendance at religious services did not continue to decline. Instead, it stabilized in 1970 at 40 percent of the population and has fluctuated around that level for the past three decades. This stability in church attendance—in the midst of rapid social and cultural change—has struck many social observers as incongruous, particularly since other measures of religiosity show decline. With membership in many denominations declining and composite measures of religious interest and confidence at near-record lows, could actual attendance today be as high as it was in the early 1970s? Were problems with measuring religious activity in postmodern society interfering with our ability to detect changes in the way Americans express their religiosity (or spirituality)?
A few years ago we began to question the reliance on social surveys to measure attendance in religious organizations. We argued that poll-based estimates of attendance ought to be cross-checked by looking at actual counts of persons attending religious services. In 1992 we teamed up with Mark Chaves to test the 40 percent figure for church attendance. Our initial study, based on attendance counts in one Ohio county and Catholic churches in eighteen dioceses, indicated a much lower rate of religious participation than the polls report. Instead of 40 percent of Protestants attending church, we found 20 percent. Instead of 50 percent of Catholics attending church, we found 28 percent. In other words, actual church attendance was slightly over half the rate indicated by national public opinion polls. Additional research in thirty Catholic dioceses in the San Francisco area provided additional confirmation that actual worship attendance is much lower than suggested by polls.
So what percent of the population attends worship at a church or synagogue during an average week in the United States? Probably somewhere between 22 and 24 percent. An exact figure is not possible because no national attendance count exists.
Interpreting Attendance Trends
Attendance at worship services is an important indicator of religious activity, especially in a society with a heritage of institutionalized religion where participation is voluntary. The level of this activity remains fairly high in the United States, but it is not as high as it once was, and it is not as high as the polls suggest. What is happening here?
Some scholars argue that declines in institutional forms of religion are compensated by increases in nontraditional forms of spirituality. Religion in America is becoming more individual, less institutional, and increasingly innovative. Witness the proliferation of parachurch organizations and quasi-religious groups as well as a surge in publications and seminars that focus more on Eastern, contemplative forms of religion. Like Habits of the Heart's infamous modern, Sheila, contemporary Americans can "be their own church."
Other scholars doubt whether such religious experimentation effectively compensates for traditional institutional involvement. There is no evidence that church attendance declines are numerically offset by participation in highly individualized or nontraditional religion. In addition, there is serious doubt about the social durability of any kind of "Sheilaism." In fact, our data on church attendance indicates that most Americans still identify with traditional denominations, and whether they go or not, prefer to see themselves as churchgoers.
Bellah, Robert, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton. Habits of theHeart. 1985.
Finke, Roger and Rodney Stark. The Churching of America, 1776 –1990. 1992.
Hadaway, C. Kirk, and Penny L. Marler. "The Problem with Father as Proxy: Denominational Switching and Religious Change, 1965–1988." Journal for theScientific Study of Religion 35 (1996): 156–164.
Hadaway, C. Kirk, Penny L. Marler, and Mark Chaves. "What the Polls Don't Show: A Closer Look at U.S. Church Attendance." American Sociological Review 58 (1993): 741–752.
Hadaway, C. Kirk, Penny L. Marler, and Mark Chaves. "Overreporting Church Attendance in America: Evidence That Demands the Same Verdict." American Sociological Review 63 (1998): 122–130.
Mead, Sidney. The Nation with the Soul of a Church. 1975.
Princeton Religion Research Center. "Church Attendance Constant." Emerging Trends 14, no. 3 (1992): 4.
Roof, Wade Clark. A Generation of Seekers. 1993.
Roozen, David, and Jackson W. Carroll. "Recent Trends in Church Membership and Participation: An Introduction." In Understanding Church Growthand Decline, edited by Dean R. Hoge and David A. Roozen. 1979.
Penny Long MarlerC. Kirk Hadaway
at·tend·ance / əˈtendəns/ • n. the action or state of going regularly to or being present at a place or event: my attendance at church was very irregular. ∎ the number of people present at a particular event, function, or meeting: reports placed the attendance at 500,000. PHRASES: in attendance present at a function or a place. ∎ accompanying a member of royalty or the aristocracy in the capacity of an assistant or servant.