Praying for Economic Salvation

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Are more people going to church in these hard times? First Gallup and now Pew says no way. Cathy Grossman, bless her ARIS-loving soul, buys their line, but I’m skeptical. Why? Because they didn’t ask the right question.

Gallup asks, “How often do you attend church, synagogue, or mosque–at least once a week, almost every week, about once a month, seldom, or never?” Pew asks, “Aside from weddings and funerals, how often do you
attend religious services… more than once a week, once a week, once
or twice a month, a few times a year, seldom, or never?” Gallup gets an almost flat line at 42 percent weekly attendance; Pew, at 39. Gallup, indeed, has been asking just about the same question since the late 1940s, and the answers have never varied more than a few points north and south of 40.

So what’s wrong? Not only do such questions call for a characterization of customary behavior, but weekly attendance has long been the gold standard of Christian observance in America. And we know from on-the-ground studies that actual weekly attendance in America now runs in the low-to-mid 20 percent range. There’s very little chance that asking about attendance in this way will reveal changes in behavior of a few months’ duration.

I have no fixed opinion on whether attendance is up or not. Last December, the NYT’s Paul Vitello reported that it was, based on interviews with a number of pastors–and got beaten up by some Gallup-quoting folks for doing so. For more solid empirical results, some survey might usefully ask, “Have you been attending worship services more frequently in the past few months?” It’s worth bearing in mind that American culture is always on the lookout for signs of religious revival. And always ready to report the bad news that it hasn’t managed to happen. Based on available evidence, we should suspend judgment.