Monday, April 02, 2007

How often do Christians attend church?

(Part 1 in an 8 post series on Christian church attendance)

Jay Egenes, a reader of this blog, has asked me if I knew of any data regarding how many Christians are nominal Christians, and if the number of nominal Christians is increasing over time. I don’t know if there is a standard definition of being “nominal,” but it seems that church attendance would be one way of measuring it. Church attendance is commonly measured in social surveys, so I pulled out some data from the General Social Survey, GSS, which has interviewed a couple of thousand people every few years since the 1970s.

The GSS asks: “How often do you attend religious services?” (Q 105).

Current Attendance Rates
I dropped all respondents who did not self-identify as Christians. This included agnostics, atheists, and members of other religions. Among Christians, here are the frequency rates of attending church in the GSS surveys conducted in 2000, 2002, and 2004.

Frequency of Christian Church Attendance, 2000-2004
Never, 10.4%
Less than once a year, 6.4%
About once or twice a year, 12.4%
Several times a year, 13.7%
About once a month, 8.2%
2-3 times a month, 10.9%
Nearly every week, 7.1%
Every week, 21.9%
Several times a week, 9.1%

So, for example, 1309, or 21.9%, of Christians in the last three waves of the GSS attended church on a weekly basis.

To simplify matters, I recoded the attendance variable to four categories, which produced the following frequencies:
Never, 10.4%
Yearly, 32.5%
Monthly, 19.1%
Weekly, 38.1%

So then, back to the initial question of how many nominal Christians? It depends on how we define being nominal. Suppose we define being nominal as going to church less than once a month, then 42.9% of the Christians in the sample are nominal. I'm not sure that there is a clearly-defined threshold between nominal and active, so perhaps the most interesting way to use attendance data is to compare across time and types of Christian.


kent said...

I would suggest that less than once a month is certainly nominal. I also believe that once a month is also nominal. But then I also believe the Sabbath did not become optional in the New Testament. I believe that we have a poorly developed Ecclesiology which encourages this issue.

Brad Wright said...

Interesting idea about the Sabbath... that seems to be one of those things that is pretty clear in scripture but is widely ignored by Christians.

DLW said...

Self-reports of church attendance are probably overestimates. When asked if you attended religious services in the last week, about 45% say yes; although there are no official records to check it against, an ASR article that tried to piece the evidence together came up with a considerably lower estimate, around 25%. I don't remember the details, but I remember thinking that it was convincing. Of course, more of the overestimation may be among people who attend often--people saying "every week" when they actually miss once every few weeks, or "almost every" when they actually attend only about half. But in any case, your estimate of the number of "nominals" could be on the low side.

Brad Wright said...

Good ideas... as a family, we're in the just about every week category but when we think of ourselves as every weekers. I'll have to track down that ASR article.

What you say, combined with the absolutely arbitrary nature of the threshold I picked, make me think that saying some % of Christians are nominal isn't that useful of a statistic.

In, comparing % attendance over time and across groups might be the more informative analysis of these data.

Jay Egenes said...

Church attendance is clearly only one way (although a useful way) to think about what it means to be a nominal Christian. Since I asked the question about nominal Christianity, I've picked up a book by Eddie Gibbs called In Name Only: Tackling the Problem of Nominal Christianity. Gibbs adapted work by Rodney Stark and Charles Y. Glock to identify six dimensions or aspects that are useful in analyzing what it means to be a member of a religious group "in name only":
1. Strength of Religious Conviction.
2. Knowlege about beliefs of the religion.
3. Level of commitment to a local church.
4. Personal Acts of Devotion (private Bible reading, prayer, etc.)
5. Frequency and intensity of experience--a sense of an encounter with God
6. Influence of Faith on daily life

While Gibbs phrased these in a way that is particularly applicable to Christianity, the same categories could probably be adapted to thinking about membership in any faith group or religion.

Brad Wright said...

Oh, I like that list of religious dimensions. I'm currently working on a survey for a local church that is trying to measure individuals involvement in Christianity... these six dimensions would be a good start. Thanks for the tip!