Church Attendance in the United States
Mark Chaves and Laura Stephens
Although there is more to religious belief and practice than participation in organized religion, and although media reports sometimes make it appear that new and unconventional forms of religiosity are swamping more traditional practice, the collective expression of religion in the United States still mainly means attendance at weekend religious services. When people who say they did not attend religious services in the past week are asked in surveys whether they participated in some other type of religious event or meeting, only 2 percent say yes. If other sorts of religious activity have increased, that increase is not much at the expense of traditional weekend attendance at religious services. For this reason, the level of participation in traditional worship services – church and synagogue attendance – and trends in those levels, remain valuable, if mundane, windows onto American religion and its collective expression.
For many years scholars of American religion agreed on two basic facts about church attendance: (a) on any given weekend approximately 40 percent of Americans attend religious services, and (b) this rate has been essentially stable at least since the 1950s. In this chapter, we review the evidence about the contemporary level of attendance at religious services, and we review the evidence about trends in that participation. Regarding the first, recent research has shown that weekly attendance in the United States is significantly lower than 40 percent. Regarding the second, recent research has unsettled the previous consensus about stability in attendance over time. Although recent research has not yet definitively established that there has been decline rather stability, several major studies point in that direction, and these studies are suggestive enough to throw into question what previously appeared to be a settled matter. In exploring the factual matters at issue here, we will see that assessing the level of religious participation in the United States, and interpreting its meaning, is a more complex matter than one might initially expect. In the conclusion, we discuss the meaning of religious participation levels and trends for larger questions about religion's social significance in the United States.
Very few findings within sociology become widely and firmly established as solid social facts. However, the claim that approximately 40 percent of the population of the