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Polling Matters
Church Leaders and Declining Religious Service Attendance
Polling Matters

Church Leaders and Declining Religious Service Attendance

Church attendance has edged down in recent years. Gallup's latest yearly update from its daily tracking survey shows that in 2017, 38% of adults said they attended religious services weekly or almost every week. When Gallup began asking this question in 2008, that figure was 42%.

Chart showing declining yearly averages of Americans’ reported church attendance, from 42% in 2008 to 38% now.

Gallup has asked a different question in its polls going back to the 1950s: "Did you, yourself, happen to attend church, synagogue or mosque in the last seven days, or not?" That number, too, has been edging down over the years. It was as high as 49% in the mid-1950s, but has been in the mid-30% range in recent years.

A lot of attention has been paid to reasons for the decline in participation in formal religious services. One potential explanation that doesn't receive as much attention as others is the impact of the quality of religious leaders at the church level. Much of our Gallup research for business and industry focuses on the importance of managers for employee engagement -- summed up by the statement, "Workers don't quit companies; they quit managers." It's certainly possible that churchgoers don't quit churches, but instead quit ministers, priests and rabbis.

We don't have much data that speaks to the possible declining quality of church ministers as a reason for declining church attendance. In particular, we don't have trend data collected over time that would be most useful in documenting such a trend.

We also have a challenge in doing research on local church leaders because of the ease by which church members can drift away if they don't like a pastor or priest or rabbi. It's often complex and risky to change jobs and companies; it's easier in most situations to change churches. Thus, when an interviewer asks church members about their minister, there may be built-in bias resulting from the fact that those who are more negative have already left the church -- either moving to another congregation or just quitting the church.

This brings to mind some research we conducted a number of years ago, where we asked married Americans to grade their marriages. Given the high rate of divorce in the U.S., we were a bit surprised to find that two-thirds of married individuals graded their marriage as an A, and that most of the rest gave it a B. Nobody gave their marriage an F, and only 1% a D. We concluded that anyone who was in a bad marriage most likely had voted with their feet and left the marriage by the time we called them.

Accepting these challenges, we gathered some preliminary data among a random sample of U.S. church members in May. We asked all those who said that they were a member of a church or synagogue to rate their pastor, priest or rabbi across three major dimensions of congregational leadership: delivering sermons, having caring interactions with members and managing church operations. Since we only surveyed church members, we hoped that an analysis of the differences between those who attend frequently and those who don't attend frequently (but who are still members) would provide useful insights.

The results show a significant gap in leader ratings between members who attended church in the past seven days and those who did not.

Rating Ministers, Priests and Rabbis
% Outstanding, among church and synagogue members only
Member, attended past seven days Member, did not attend past seven days
% %
Delivering sermons 63 41
Having caring personal interactions with members 63 40
Managing operations 56 36
Gallup, May 1-10, 2018

Frequent attenders are much more likely to rate their pastor, priest or rabbi as "outstanding" across the three pastoral dimensions than are those who didn't attend in the past seven days. (The other rating options were "good," "average," "below average" and "poor.") In other words, frequent attenders have a higher level of engagement with their church leaders than those who don't attend as frequently.

The lower "outstanding" ratings given by church members who don't attend frequently is not simply because they don't offer an opinion. There is little difference between those who attended in the past week and those who didn't in terms of having no opinion on their church leaders. Less-frequent attenders do have an opinion; it's just less positive.

Less-frequent attenders are not highly negative, to be sure. The main differences between the two groups are in the "outstanding" and "good" categories. Frequent attenders are more likely to rate their minister as outstanding; less-frequent attenders are more likely to rate their minister as good.

There are a number of possible explanations for this relationship between church leader ratings and attendance. It could be that those who attend less frequently simply haven't gotten to know their ministers well, and that this lack of propinquity results in their being less likely to use the label "outstanding." There could be a factor at play that causes certain people to be less charitable in rating leaders and also causes them to be less likely to participate in church services.

But the correlational data do raise the possibility that those who are staying away from church may be doing so precisely because they are less engaged by their church leaders than are those who attend more frequently.

I should note that the data certainly show room for improvement on the part of the nation's pastors, priests and rabbis. Among all church members, 54% rate their minister's sermons as outstanding, 53% rate their minister's interpersonal interaction as outstanding and 48% rate their minister's church management as outstanding. If being viewed as an outstanding church leader stands as a reasonable objective, then almost half of all leaders have fallen short of that goal.

A separate Gallup study from 2017 provided further information on the importance of the functions of church leaders as reasons for church attendance. Americans who attended services at least monthly were asked to rate the importance of seven factors as reasons for their attendance. The headline from that study summarizes the results as follows: "Sermon Content Is What Appeals Most to Churchgoers." More specifically, "sermons or talks that teach you more about Scripture" and "sermons or lectures that help you connect religion to your own life" were rated as the top two factors for attendance, each by about three-quarters of all churchgoers interviewed.

Reasons for Attending Church or Other Place of Worship
Is each of the following a major factor, a minor factor or not a factor in why you attend church or a place of worship?
Major factor Minor factor Not a factor
% % %
Sermons or talks that teach you more about Scripture 76 16 8
Sermons or lectures that help you connect religion to your own life 75 16 8
Spiritual programs geared toward children and teenagers 64 21 15
Lots of community outreach and volunteer opportunities 59 27 13
Dynamic religious leaders who are interesting and inspiring 54 28 17
Social activities that allow you to get to know people in your community 49 36 14
A good choir, praise band, cantors or other spiritual music 38 36 25
Based on adults who attend church, synagogue or mosque monthly or more often (% "No opinion" not shown)
Gallup, March 9-29, 2017

A recent study conducted by Pew Research Center provides additional interesting information on this topic. Pew researchers gave a sample of those who go to church at least once or twice a month a long list of potential reasons for attending. Pew's list combined tangible factors like sermons with intangible benefits such as getting closer to God. The results show that churchgoers rate three intangibles (to become closer to God, to become a better person, and for comfort in times of trouble and sorrow) at the top of the list, along with providing a moral foundation for children. Hearing valuable sermons comes in just below, in fifth place.

My interpretation of these results underscores the importance of church leaders. It is not surprising that church attenders say they go to church to obtain personal and spiritual benefits and surcease from sorrow in troubled times. The key question is: Who or what delivers these benefits? Some personal and spiritual dividends certainly arise from the basic experience of simply being in a house of worship and experiencing all that happens during a church service. But there is little doubt that outstanding church leadership can be a powerful factor in facilitating the degree to which members feel closer to God, learn how to become better people, and get comfort in times of trouble and sorrow.

Plus, the sermon as delivered by the church leader is the most important way in which these values are expressed at church, helping account for its relatively high ranking in the Pew study and its top ranking in the Gallup data.

As the late Haddon Robinson, a preaching professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, once said: "The parish concept is dead. People join a church because of the pastor." Those who find church leaders unsatisfactory can easily drift away from active participation, often not bothering to seek out a new church. This is particularly easy to do in the unique United States religious structure, which makes it possible to switch churches or even Protestant denominations with little effort.

Another part of the Pew study showed that 37% of those who attend religious services only a few times a year or less say that it is because of what Pew calls a "dislike for congregation or religious services," including those who haven't found a church they like and those who dislike the sermons. These factors are directly related to church leadership. Another 37% say they don't attend because they practice their faith in other ways, which makes them susceptible to picking up church attendance if they come across, or are introduced to, a church and church leader they deem outstanding.

The research I've reviewed here does not demonstrate conclusively that church leaders are an important factor in the decline in church attendance. There are many ongoing social and cultural changes that are affecting all aspects of Americans' lives, including religious attitudes and behaviors. But there can be little doubt that outstanding ministers who deliver powerful sermons, who have a warm and caring attitude toward their congregants, and who can manage the church well are critical factors in maintaining and increasing attendance at their places of worship.

Many ministers may dislike the conclusion that they are personally responsible for attendance, and many may feel that expanding church attendance is not their primary ministerial goal. But, like it or not, pastors, priests and rabbis have accepted the mantle of responsibility for their church, and without engaged members, any church can wither away and literally be forced to close its doors.


Frank Newport, Ph.D., is a Gallup Senior Scientist. He is the author of Polling Matters: Why Leaders Must Listen to the Wisdom of the People and God Is Alive and Well. Twitter: @Frank_Newport

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