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Estimating Americans' Worship Behavior

Survey-based estimates have value

This article is the first of two articles on Americans' worship frequency.

How many Americans routinely worship at churches or synagogues? The attempt to answer that question is both fascinating and complex. Because the U.S. Census does not collect data about religion, there are no official data to help answer that question. Various church bodies and denominations may attempt to tote up attendance at their formal worship services, but there are so many church bodies and such varying standards of reporting that these efforts generally cannot be used to produce reliable attendance estimates.

Thus, it is not surprising that survey researchers' estimates have, over the years, been used to gauge Americans' worship habits. Gallup, for one, has been asking Americans about their church attendance for nearly 70 years, which provides a rich and extensive historical record.

Gallup's Measures

Gallup asks about worship frequency in several different ways. One Gallup question asks individuals to estimate their usual (or average) frequency of church attendance. Another Gallup question simply asks individuals to look back no further than the last seven days and to indicate whether they have attended worship services during that period.

This last procedure, used by Gallup since 1939, was designed to be a more precise measure, although it has turned out to be the most controversial. Gallup has asked this question of a general population sample of U.S. adults hundreds of times over the years. On a regular and routine basis in recent years, roughly 4 in 10 Americans have told Gallup interviewers that they attended "church or synagogue" in the last seven days.

For example, in the six times that Gallup has asked this question since 2003, the percentage of Americans who said they had attended church or synagogue within the last seven days was 38%, 43%, 43%, 45%, 44%, and 42%. Although recorded values on this measure were consistently higher in the 1950s, they have generally been in the 40% to 45% range for most other points in time over the last six to seven decades. (Interestingly, the average percentage who said "yes" in 1939 was 41%, virtually the same as recorded most recently in 2005.)

The second regular way in which Gallup measures church attendance is to ask this question: "How often do you attend church or synagogue -- at least once a week, almost every week, about once a month, seldom, or never?" In November 2005, 33% said they attend at least once a week, 12% said almost every week, 15% said about once a month, 26% said seldom, and 14% said never.

There is little question that these survey-based measures are just estimates, even the seemingly more precise question about worship "in the last seven days." People are not perfect when it comes to remembering or being able to recount the specifics of their past behavior. While most of us can remember if we have been attacked by a bear, it is more difficult to be precise in recalling how many times we engage in routine behaviors such as church attendance, grocery shopping, or getting a haircut. Self-reported attendance "in the last seven days" may in fact reflect usual church attendance. And those who estimate that they attend church at least once a week presumably are not in church each and every week out of the year. Illnesses, vacations, and the like may keep even the most reliable churchgoer away some weeks during the year.

Next week, Dr. Newport discusses the value -- and the potential pitfalls -- of using non-survey-based methods to estimate worship attendance.

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