Thursday, January 31, 2013

Pole Results that Lie

I shared an article a while back with my social media network about American Christians and poling statistics.  The essential thrust of the article was that American's over state how often they attend church.  In her latest book "Christianity After Religion" Diana Butler Bass offers an entire chapter to the topic.  She states that the three questions that shape religion are: What do I believe?  How should I act? Who am I?  Surveys and polls are always trying to evaluate one of these three things.   For today I want to discuss the "How should I act" idea.  Pew research tells us that 71% of Americans claim Christianity as their religion of choice.  Beyond that since 1960 surveys have remained steady at claiming approximately 40-45% of Americans say they attend church, synagogue, or mosque in the previous seven days.  This consistent polling data is often used to demonstrate how religious America is compared to say Europe.  It also gives hope to those who say that despite the massive amount of social and economic change America has experienced in the past fifty years church attendance has remained the same.

However, any pastor, religious leader, or casual Sunday commuter can tell you this just isn't the reality.  One only needs look into our sanctuary's or empty roads and quiet neighborhoods on a Sunday morning to see that 45% of us are not out and about attending services.  Philip Brenner from University of Michigan has found that Americans over report their church attendance by up to 18 points.  So basically we do not attend church, but then we feel the need to lie about not going to church.  This puts actual church attendance to around 24%.   Other statisticians would say that the range is actually as low as 14-22% of actual attendees in worship.  This is still relatively high compared to other western countries, but it still parallels the decline experienced by Canada and Europe over the past forty years.

My question is why?  Why do people who do not attend worship regularly feel the need to say they do?  I think it has something to do with social norms.  American religion in general has always been a big part of how we identify ourselves.  I remember learning in elementary school that the first settlers of the colonies were there for religious freedom. Is that the reason, its just because we are rooted in religious norms?  During the cold war days one of the ways Americans differentiated themselves from the "godless communists" was by pointing toward their religiosity.  I know from stories from retired clergy that in order to be on many city council boards or public offices one could prove their good character by being on the deacon board of their church and without it couldn't get onto the public scene.  So many church boards were filled with people less concerned with the church and more concerned with public image.

Broken down our surveys tell us:

  1. 71% of Americans claim Christianity as their religion
  2. 41% claim to attend services regularly
  3. but only around 14-24% actually do
Basically there is about a 45 point gap of people who claim Christianity and those who are actually part of some sort of weekly faith community participation.  

I throw this out there as a conversation starter.  Use the comment section to dialogue.  
What does this say about American religion?
Do you experience this in your church?
What are the people in the gap between actual attendance and reported attendance about?  Why do they claim participation when they don't?
What about the 30 point gap between those who claim Christianity but also say they don't attend.  Who are they and why don't they attend?

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