September 13, 2013

What surveys say about worship attendance – and why some stay home

This Sunday is “National Back to Church Sunday,” a coordinated effort by more than 20,000 churches of various Christian denominations to reach out to people who rarely attend worship services.

The percentage of Americans who say they “seldom” or “never” attend religious services (aside from weddings and funerals) has risen modestly in the past decade. Roughly three-in-ten U.S. adults (29%) now say they seldom or never attend worship services, up from 25% in 2003, according to aggregated data from Pew Research Center surveys. The share of people who say they attend services at least once a week has remained relatively steady; 37% say they attend at least weekly today, compared with 39% a decade ago.


Of course, how often people say they usually attend services is not necessarily the same as how often they actually do attend. For example, time diary studies, in which respondents report on concrete activities over a limited span of time, often show lower rates of church attendance than data from surveys, which perhaps better reflect how people see themselves (rather than how they behave).

Among the growing share of religiously unaffiliated adults in the U.S., the vast majority say they are not looking for a religion, and relatively few (5%) say they go to services weekly or more often. But what keeps people who have a religious affiliation – that is, who identify with a particular religious group – out of the pews?

A 2012 Pew Research poll asked respondents to answer this question in their own words. Among religiously affiliated Americans who say that religion is at least somewhat important in their lives, but who attend worship services no more than a few times a year, 24% cite personal priorities – including 16% who say they are too busy – as reasons they do not attend more often. Another 24% mention practical difficulties, including work conflicts, health problems or transportation difficulties.

Nearly four-in-ten (37%) point to an issue directly related to religion or church itself. The most common religion-related responses include disagreements with the beliefs of the religion or their church leaders, or beliefs that attending worship services is not important. Meanwhile, almost one-in-ten (9%) do not attribute their lack of attendance at religious services to anything in particular.

Topics: Religious Beliefs and Practices, Religiously Unaffiliated

  1. Photo of Michael Lipka

    is a senior editor focusing on religion at Pew Research Center.


  1. David Odhiambo2 years ago

    What I see here, with you my friend is that you refuse to study the bible but only trying to find fault with the scriptures. In story of Joseph you lie against the bible, because, first Joseph was furious upon finding that Mary was pregnant, until when he was told the truth about the pregnancy and the child who was to be born, by the angle of the Lord. It wasn’t that Joseph was sympathetic to Mary, but he only obeyed the voice of God through the Angel. So, between Google and The Bible, “which one is older than the other.

  2. Denis Logan3 years ago

    I’m 75 years old and in my life I have belonged to four different religions. Two or three years ago my wife and I quit our last affiliation, with the LDS Church (Mormon) Church. Our difference of opinion with our last Church was their activity in California and their opposition with proposition 8, that would allow Gay Marriage. I thought the Church’s, opposition, sending money and Church Members to California to fight in the election to defeat this proposition and to support politicians that were against Proposition 8, was against Churches protection under the U.S. Constitution. The Churches reluctance to admit their involvement was and is against the teachings of Jesus Christ. Also with members of the LDS Church there is wide spread Racism, which is condoned by the leadership, by their silence on this mater.
    Something I heard from a Law Enforcement offices was the inability to investigate Churches, suspected of illegal actives, such as money laundering, drugs, etc. I have given some thought to this, and it would easy to set up a Church, attract legitimate members and clergy. Then keep control of the books and the behind the scene leaders could control receipts and expenditures. and make it look like a legitimate Church. Police and Courts are not able to investigate the Churches because of Religions protection under the Constitution. Don’t you know criminals have thought exactly how to do this.

    1. Chassity2 years ago

      Dennis my friend you have got to check out the Sealed Portion if you used to be LDS…

      Download it for free and spread the world. Stay home folks, the money you contribute to your church’s actually does more harm than good because they donate things to other countries and in return that puts people in other countries out of work. It’s more complicated than that but you can learn more following the humanity party or voice humanity on tumblr. #voteanonymous2016 to end poverty – we don’t want your money, we just want this country to stop fighting before all hell breaks loose

  3. Lance3 years ago

    When any Church, Religion or Group calling itself Christian becomes a “Thou shalt not” group instead of a “Thou SHALL” group, there is degeneration, defamation and declination.
    There is actually only 1 Commandment in the Bible that is a “Thou SHALL” command: It eclipses every single one of the “10 commandments” and the over 600 rules, laws and regulations Pharisees found in the Scriptures. In fact, the Bible says the only way we can keep from self-destruct behavior is to DO this vital Command:
    “YOU SHALL LOVE God with all your mind, strength & energy…and then LOVE EVERYONE AROUND YOU the same way.”
    If this “THOU SHALL” Command is practiced, OUR THINKING will be transformed. Our identity will be driven by compassion instead of criticism & complaint. Our purpose will change from selfish motives into selfless deeds. The Church will grow OUTSIDE of the walls we have created…IF we obey this Commandment.
    Pastor Lance

    1. Janet Ellerman3 years ago

      Dear Pastor Lance:

      I was GREATLY moved by your response! I become weary of the in-fighting of all those who claim to be Christian! The church/religion in which I was raised, AND the HOME as well; NEVER said UNKIND, CRITICAL things about other religions…My PARENTS taught that “of course” we believed our’s was the right way….”or we wouldn’t go there”!

      EVERYONE ELSE #2. I believe GOD made it simple so we could remember it!!

  4. Joy Job Thottukadavil4 years ago

    The ‘PRIESTS’ who are supposed to be the PASTORS OF FLOCK have now very pathetically degenerated to be the mere ADMINISTRATORS OF CHURCH !
    Pope Francis of course exhibits some signs of “BEING A PASTOR”.
    This of course, I believe would rejuvenate, not only Church but the Religions and Moral of the whole world.

    If this hope is fulfilled, no doubt the worship attendance is going to be on an increase.
    But I fear the evil forces at any time may put lock to his tongue and deeds!

    1. DennisLurvey3 years ago

      I can go to any service, listen to the sermon, and go home and google the facts of his sermon; and find there is no historical or actual proof that it ever happened at all. Younger ppl are doing this and leaving religion because of what they find, as Jesus said ‘in the mind there lies the treasure’ or its all in your mind.

      I would rather go to a service where they admitted the sermon was advice to live by, and not an actual event. The ppl who say they dont believe they have to attend services to be good might be gnostics, ppl who believe god is within.

      1. Lavender3 years ago

        I suppose I can “Google” anything and find something that goes against the truth. Google is not the final word, it in is itself is only a means to do research. In my efforts to “Google” facts about the Bible, I came across this:…
        so your statement that “Google” disproves the Bible, is incorrect.
        If you want the truth, study the Bible, and do more research. Don’t just choose the sites which try to disclaim the Bible. I have been reading the Bible and doing the same. Amazing how, when you open your mind and want the truth, you will see how the history in the Bible aligns with everything today. I have also seen several good shows that prove the Bible. It was common in those days, for the rulers to eradicate any history that makes them look bad. How many other books have survived 2000 years?

      2. Dave3 years ago

        Dennis, in general I agree that some people do leave the church over doubts about the veracity of the Scripture. But you should have googled your own “quote” of Jesus. He never said “in the mind there lies the treasure.” He did say, “For where your treasure is, there your heart wil be also” in Luke 12:34.

        For many, it’s easier said than done.

      3. Greg deGiere3 years ago

        Good point, Dennis.

        I’ve been attending Christmas services at my current church for nine years, and at a few other churches occasionally before that. I’ve always gotten something out of them – a feeling of community that I found especially important at the time of the longest nights of the year, a sense of tradition, some benefit from ritual, sometimes beautiful music. But having no evidence that such as unlikely event as a virgin birth actually happened, I don’t remember ever getting anything out of the sermons.

        So this year was the first time I ever heard a message about the Christmas story that was meaningful to me. It began with the pastor frankly acknowledging that the biblical stories aren’t historically factual, and went from there to looking for what about the stories do have meaning. One point that struck me was his quote from the biblical story of what Joseph didn’t and didn’t do when he found his fiance was pregnant.

        Joseph, we read, was a righteous man. The religious law required that, as a righteous man, he publicly shame his fiance, leading to her being stoned to death. But he didn’t do it. He broke the law and showed compassion instead. Without his act of compassion, violating the religious law, Jesus would not have been born.

    2. Brandon2 years ago

      The Pope isn’t the hope of the world. Jesus is.

  5. Robert Marcus4 years ago

    To the extent that any congregation would hopefully constitute a “community” where one would feel a sense, not only of some sort of religious congruity, but also a feeling of spiritual and benevolent well-being . . . ; where an inter-generational sense of tradition and roots, even if all the participants haven’t been born into that particular neighborhood or even that religion, are cherished and respected; but are NOT rigidly adhered to that new appproaches to the liturgy and interpretations of the sacred texts aren’t regularly introduced. No wonder, when I observe the bar/bat mitzvah extravaganza/horrors at many reform temples, that young Jews are disaffected and stay away: that Sheldon Adelson carries the torch of “b’nai israel”? Why go to shul? And for the Gentiles . . .to hear the USA described as a Christian nation and we see the discrepancy in poverty and wealth, in subsistence and in privilege? Who’re we kidding … after all, what DID rav Jeshua ben Miam v Joseph aka Jesus Christ really say!