Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Christian church attendance rates over time

(Part 2 in an 8 post series on Christian church attendance)

How have church attendance rates changed over time? Are Christians attending church less regularly over time? Since the GSS has been collected for several decades now, we can use it to examine these trends. Using the recoded, four-part attendance variable, here are attendance rates among all Christians by decade:

1970s 1980s 1990s 2000s
Weekly 40.7% 39.2% 37.7% 38.1%
Monthly 17.2% 18.9% 19.2% 19%
Yearly 33.6% 33.2% 33.7% 32.5%
Never 9.5% 8.7% 9.4% 10.4%

Since I have no idea how to create a proper table in blogger, and I like pictures, here is a graph of these data:

Overall it looks like there is a small drop in weekly attendance and a slight increase in monthly- and never-attendance, but overall attendance rates among Christians have remained mostly stable since the 1970s. So, are Christians becoming more nominal over time? Doesn't appear so.

Next: Attendance rates by denomination


Paula Harrington said...

Glad to find your site. I have a question. I'm working on a book and wondered how accurate your results were. :)


Brad Wright said...

Good question...

Let's see, the data I analyze, from the General Social Survey, are widely accepted as a reasonably accurate reflection of American society.

I'm pretty sure that I have analyzed them correctly in terms of using a statistical package.

Probably the most potential for inaccuracy has to do with interpreting them. E.g., the label of "nominal" Christian is purely arbitrary, so in that sense any statistics associated with it are likewise arbitrary (or, at least, dependent upon an arbitrary assumption).

Thanks for asking.

Paula Harrington said...

I hope I didn't offend you by asking. I have a gift for that :)

Thanks for answering.

Brad Wright said...

No at all... in fact, people should ask that question of sociologists a whole lot more.

Jay Egenes said...

Thanks Brad for picking up this idea and running with it.

I'd like to see if I understand what these numbers mean. (I'm a lawyer by training a currently a theology student--not a mathematician or statistician.)

I've seen studies concluding that anywhere between 75% and 85% of the U.S. population identifies itself as Christian.

I'll use the number of 80%, in the middle of this range. If you think there's a better number, I'm glad to use it instead.

In the absence of some particular factor to the contrary, it seems fair to categorize less than monthly church attendance as indicating nominal (in name only)Christianity. About 43% of self-identified Christians fall into this category in the GSS survey.
For simplicity's sake, we could divide Christians into "nominal" and "practicing"--anybody who's not nominal is practicing.

Obviously there are other questions we'd want to ask, but if this was the only data we had, we'd say that 34.4% (.80 x .43 = .344) of the U.S. population consists of nominal Christians. Subtracting that 34.4% from the 80% identifying itself as Christian, we could then argue that 45.6% of the U.S. population are practicing Christians.

While this clearly is overly simplistic, and ignores lots of other factors we might want to look at, it seems to be one legitimate way to use the data.

If it's true that people tend to overreport church attendance in surveys, maybe the number of nominal Christians goes up.

Am I on target here, or have I either missed something or so oversimplified the question that I missed the point entirely?

Thanks again for picking this up.


Brad Wright said...

You've got the numbers right.

As you point out, the threshold and measurement used here of being nominal is oversimplistic. But, given the assumptions made, you give a correct interpretation.