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Religious practices and information

How many North Americans attend religious
services (and how many lie about going)?

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  • "Americans misreport how often they vote, how much they give to charity, and how frequently they use illegal drugs. People are not entirely accurate in their self-reports about other areas as well. Males exaggerate their number of sexual partners, university workers are not very honest about reporting how many photocopies they make. Actual attendance at museums, symphonies and operas does not match survey results. We should not expect religious behavior to be immune to such misreporting." Kirk Hadaway, a sociologists at the United Church of Christ, (1993) 1,2

  • "... despite the rhetoric, active religious participation remains a minority interest in American life." Tom Flynn, writer for Free Inquiry magazine, (1998). 2
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1999: Reported attendance at religious services by Americans and Canadians:

Item USA Canada
Attend at least weekly 43% 20%
Never/almost never attend  8% 38%

This data is taken from the Millennium Study by Taylor Nelson Sofres Intersearch in 1999. 3

For years, pollsters have been asking adult Americans whether they go to religious services regularly. Typically, the specific question asks whether they attended a service during the previous weekend. The results have been relatively constant over time. Some recent estimates are:

  • 38% by the National Opinion Research Center.
  • 44% by the Institute for Social Research's World Values survey. This institute is located at the University of Michigan. 4

  • The Barna Research Group reported that in 2005, "47% of American adults [said that they] attend church in a given weekend, not including a special event such as a wedding or a funeral." 5 In earlier years, attendance varied from 37% to 49%:
    • 1991: 49%
    • 1992: 47%
    • 1996: 37%
    • 1997: 43%
    • 2000: 40%
    • 2001: 42%
    • 2002: 43%
    • 2004: 43%

  • The Gallup Poll conducts yearly polls asking the question: "Did you, yourself, happen to attend church or synagogue in the last seven days, or not?" They reported the following attendance levels. 6 The margin of error is ±2%:
    • 1992: 40%
    • 1993: 40%
    • 1994: 42%
    • 1995: 43%
    • 1996: 38%
    • 1997: 40%
    • 1998: 40%
    • 1999: 43%
    • 2000: 44%
    • 2001: 41%
    • 2002: 44%
    • 2003: 41%
    • 2008: 42%
    • 2012: 41%
    • 2016: 39%
    • 2017: 38%

Between 2008 and 2014, church attendance varied little. However, between 2014 and 2017, attemdance has been reported as steadily dropping -- slightly faster than one percentage point per year.

  • National Election Studies' poll shows that in 1996, 25% of adult Americans claimed to attend church, synagogue or temple every week; 12% almost every week; 16% once or twice a month, 18% a few times a year, and 30% never. 7 Assuming that "almost every week" means 3 weeks out of 4, then these data indicate 40% attendance.

The estimate of 40% church attendance is widely reported in the media.

Andrew Walsh, editor of the "Religion in the News" magazine and professor of religion in public life at Trinity College, commented in 1998:

"Since the late 1930s, the Gallup Organization has been asking pollees if they 'happened to attend' church or synagogue in the past seven days.' Invariably, about 40 percent respond that they have done so. Long running surveys like the General Social Survey of the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, the Harris polls, and the polling of the Barna Research Group in California have tended to support the 40 percent figure."

"This number is so commonplace that when polling data on church attendance is released, as it is several times each year, American journalists usually relegate it to news notes or use it as a springboard to other stories." 1

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How many people lie about going to religious services?

Various studies in recent years have cast a grave doubt on the 40% value.

Public opinion polls generally do not report real opinions and events. They report only the information that the individuals choose to tell the pollsters. Quite often, their answers will be distorted by a phenomenon called "social desirability bias." Pollees answer questions according to what they think they should be doing, rather than what they are doing. For example, a poll by Barna Research showed that 17% of American adults say that they tithe -- i.e. they give 10 to 13% of their income to their church. Only 3% actually do. 9

The gap between what they do and what they say they do is closer in the case of religious attendance. It is "only" about 2 to 1.

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Church attendance studies by Hadaway, Marler, and Chaves:

Kirk Hadaway and Penny Marler wrote:

"Like other social scientists who use survey data, we trusted Gallup poll results because we knew they employed sound sampling methods. Doubts emerged, however, when we compared statistics on church membership from American denominations to Gallup's reports on church attendance. If the percentage of Americans attending church is stable, aggregate church membership should have increased as the American population grew. But after adding together denominational membership statistics (including estimates of membership for independent congregations) we found that the aggregate membership total has been virtually static since the late 1960s. This contradiction led us to wonder if Americans were reporting the same level of attendance to pollsters while their actual church participation was dropping. Our first study provided an initial test of this dynamic. Subsequent research confirmed it in important ways." 10

Hadaway, Marler, and Mark Chaves counted the number of people attending four Protestant churches in Ashtabula County, OH, and in 18 Roman Catholic dioceses throughout the U.S. In their 1993 report they stated that actual attendance was only about half of the level reported in public opinion surveys: 20% vs. 40% for Protestants, and 28% vs. 50% for Roman Catholics. 1,11

They later returned to Ashtabula County to measure attendance by Roman Catholics. They physically counted the number of attendees at each mass over several months. They concluded that 24% of Catholics in he county actually attended mass. They then polled residents of the county by telephone. 51% of Roman Catholic respondents said that they had attended church during the previous week. Apparently, a slim majority were lying.

Later in 1993, Jay Demerath of the University of Massachusetts referred to the gap between poll results and reality. He said:

"Gallup and other pollsters are aware of this. It's kind of a dirty little secret." 1

Many academics were not convinced that the 20% church attendance estimate was valid. Thomas Smith of the National Opinion Research Center said:

"There's a claim that surveys lead to overreporting of church attendance, which seems to be correct. The question is by how much. We haven't nailed down how much Americans exaggerate."  1

In 1998-FEB, Hadaway, Marler, and Chaves published another article reinforcing the validity of their 20% church attendance rate estimate. Hadaway told the Minneapolis Star Tribune:

"We believe that too much trust has been placed in survey data and not enough attention given to membership records, patterns of giving, and even the incredulity of local church pastors when they hear that 40 percent of Americans attend church during an average week." 2, 12

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Church attendance studies by Presser and Stinson:

It gets worse.

Sociologist Stanley Presser of the University of Maryland and research assistant Linda Stinson of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics completed a study of notes in personal diaries. These time-use diaries were maintained for social scientific research projects in the mid-1960s, 1970s and 1990s. Those participating in the projects were asked to keep track of their activities. The 1992-1994 diaries, for example, were used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to determine exposure of the participants to harmful substances in the environment.

Presser and Stinson found that many Americans were not at church when they claimed to be. Their best estimates are that the percentage of adults who actually attended religious services during the previous weekend dropped from 42% in 1965 to 26% in 1994.

Presser said:

"We asked people, tell us everything you did in the last 24 hours so we can know what chemicals you might have been exposed to. If somebody went to church, they ought to tell us, but if they didn't go, they shouldn't manufacture it. We didn't do what most polls of religious belief do, and ask, 'Did you go to church in the last seven days?,' which some might interpret as being asked whether they were good people and good Christians." 13

The Washington Post reported that the analysis

"reveals a discrepancy between the diaries and the polls, and suggests that many Americans have been misreporting how they spend their Sunday mornings, inflating estimates of church attendance by perhaps as much as a third." 14

American Atheists commented:

"The researchers also found that the percentage of Americans who lie about their attendance is increasing. Presser and Stinson described the 16-point drop off in church attendance 'really very striking'..." 14

If this study by Presser and Stinson is accurate, it would indicate a substantial drop in actual church attendance from the mid 1960s to the mid 1990s. Since the reported attendance has remained stuck at the magical 40% figure for decades, one might conclude that the rate of exaggeration of church attendance is increasing. Also, it would appear that polls are to be mistrusted. Nobody really knows what the percentage attendance is. To obtain accurate data, pollsters will have to abandon the comfortable task of polling opinion by phone and camp out in church, synagogue, and mosque parking lots so that they can count noses.

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More recent polling results:

Tom Flynn, writing for the Free Inquiry magazine wrote:

"Some pollsters have refined their survey instruments after the 1993 Hadaway paper. Gallup changed its questions, but continued to report weekly churchgoing at over 40%. Yet when the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) redesigned its mammoth General Social Survey (GSS), church attendance figures declined sharply. For many years GSS data had supported Gallup's; the redesigned 1996 GSS reported that only between 29 and 30.5% of Americans attended church in the last week, a figure similar to Presser and Stinson's."

"Hadaway, Marler, and Chaves wonder, "To what extent do these findings challenge the conventional wisdom that Americans are a very religious people?" At the least, they would seem to reinforce the claim that despite the rhetoric, active religious participation remains a minority interest in American life." 2

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Over-reporting in other countries:

The 50% figure also appears to apply in the UK. Author Monica Furlong commented on the Church of England data:

"...people questioned about how much they go to church, give figures which, if true, would add up to twice those given by the churches." 15

Hadaway and Marler noted that when Gallup asked people in Great Britain what they did during the previous weekend, and presents a list of likely activities, they found that 14% said they went to church. But when the question that Gallup asks in the US ("Did you, yourself, happen to attend church or synagogue in the last seven days?") is asked in Great Britain, the weekly attendance rate rises to 21%. They state that:

"... figures from the 1989 English Church Census and additional attendance data from the 1996-97 UK Christian Handbook indicate that only around 10 percent attend worship services each week." 10

Hadaway, Marler, and Chaves repeated their Ohio study in Oxford Country in southern Ontario, Canada. Most polls show that 20% of the adult population say that they go to church weekly. Again, half were lying, as only about 10% actually attend church weekly.

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Fluctuation in church attendance after the 9-11 terrorist attacks:

There was a surge in church attendance after the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington on 2001-SEP-11. Some religious leaders predicted that the phenomenon would be short lived. Others saw it as the start of a major revival in the U.S. According to the New York Times, Franklin Graham, son of the well known Christian evangelist, Rev. Billy Graham, hailed it as an enduring turn toward God. On NOV-20, Fundamentalist Christian Pat Robertson said that the attack was:

"... bringing about one of the greatest spiritual revivals in the history of America. ... People are turning to God. The churches are full." 8

It appears that, with the exception of the New York City area, the increase lasted only about two months. By 2001-NOV-26, attendance had returned to normal. The New York Times cites data from the Gallup Organization, which shows that religious attendance rose from 41% in 2001-MAY to 47% by 2001-SEP-21. By early November, attendance had sunk back to 42%.

The director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University, Robert Wuthnow, said that the terrorists' attacks have not changed the basic makeup of the U.S.:

  • About one in four of American adults is devoutly religious;
  • one in four is secular, and
  • the remaining half is mildly interested about religion.

Wuthnow said:

"We are in some ways a very religious country, especially compared to Western Europe. But we're of two minds, and the other mind is that we really are pretty secular. We are very much a country of consumers and shoppers, and we're quite materialistic. And as long as we can kind of paste together a sense of control through our ordinary work and our ordinary purchases, we're pretty happy to do that." 8

Rabbi Ronald S. Roth of West End Synagogue in Nashville, TN, said:

"We did see a larger influx for the holidays, and the mood was very intense. I can't say, however, that this increased interest in services has been sustained...When people face such a tragic and horrible event, they need comfort, they need community, they need to relate to their God and their traditions, and try to find a way to get through the pain. Once I think people got past some of the initial shock and difficulties, they started to get back to how it was before."

A poll conducted by Barna Research Group showed no increase in 11 of the 13 key measures of religiosity due to the terrorist attacks.

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Individual churches growth rate:

Church researcher and author, Thom Rainer, led a research team that concluded in 2012 that:

"94 percent of our churches are losing ground in the communities they serve."

That is, their church attendance is not growing as fast as the population growth rate in their community. 16

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Decline by denomination:

Outreach Magazine reported in 2018-APR that:

"The most significant drop in attendance came at the expense of the Catholic Church, which experienced an 11 percent decrease in its attendance percentage from 2000 to 2004. Next, and not far behind were mainline churches, which saw a 10 percent percentage decline. Evangelicals experienced the smallest drop at 1 percent." 16

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Andrew Walsh, "Church, Lies and Polling Data," Religion in the News, 1998-Fall, Vol. 1, #2, at: http://www.trincoll.edu/
  2. Tom Flynn, "True churchgoing revealed," Free Inquiry, 1998-Fall, at: http://www.secularhumanism.org/
  3. Millennium Study by Taylor Nelson Sofres Intersearch. Reviewed by Maranatha Christian Journal for 1999-DEC-13 at: http://www.mcjonline.com/ Church attendance data at: http://www.intersearch.tnsofres.com/ This is an Acrobat PDF file. You can obtain a free software to read these files from Adobe.
  4. "Study of worldwide rates of religiosity, church attendance," 1997-DEC-10 at: http://www.umich.edu/
  5. "Church Attendance," Barna Research, (2007) See: http://www.barna.org/
  6. Frank Newport, "A Look at Americans and Religion Today," Speaking of Faith program, American Public Media, (2004), at:
    by http://speakingoffaith.publicradio.org/
  7. "Church Attendance 1970 - 1996," National Election Studies at: http://www.umich.edu/ 
  8. Laurie Goodstein, "As Attacks' Impact Recedes, a Return to Religion as Usual," New York Times, 2001-NOV-26, at: http://www.nytimes.com/
  9. "Answers to frequently asked questions," at: http://www.barna.org/
  10. C. Kirk Hadaway and P.L. Marler, "Did You Really Go To Church This Week? Behind the Poll Data," The Christian Century, 1998-MAY-06, Pages 472 to 475. Online at: http://www.religion-online.org/
  11. M. Chaves, K. Hadaway & P. Marler, "What the Polls Don©t Show: A Closer Look at U.S. Church Attendance," American Sociological Review, 1993.
  12. M. Chaves, K. Hadaway & P. Marler, ""Overreporting Church Attendance in America: Evidence that Demands the Same Verdict," American Sociological Review, 1998-FEB.
  13. Natalie Angier, "The Bush Years; Confessions of a Lonely Atheist," New York Times, 2001-JAN-14, at: http://ffrf.org/
  14. "New research casts more doubt on church attendance figures," American Atheists, 1998-MAY-23, at: http://www.atheists.org/
  15. Monica Furlong, "C of E: The State It's in," Hodder & Stroughton, (2002), Page 216. Order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store.
  16. "7 Startling Facts: An Up Close Look at Church Attendance in America," Church Leaders, 2018-APR-10, at: https://churchleaders.com/
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Copyright © 1999 to 2018 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance.
Latest update: 2018-OCT-10
Author: B.A. Robinson

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