Fewer Americans Than Thought Going to Church, Says Study

Fred Jackson & Jody Brown | AgapePress | Monday, May 15, 2006

Fewer Americans Than Thought Going to Church, Says Study

(AgapePress) - A new study concludes the number of Americans attending church every Sunday is a whole lot less than what has been reported. One of the researchers suggests that the success of mega-churches across the country could be one reason for the misperception about how many Americans actually spend Sunday morning in a worship service.

Christianity Today notes that for years, Gallup pollsters have reported that 40 percent of Americans -- roughly 118 million people -- attend a church every Sunday. But a new study done by an Episcopal Church researcher, Kirk Hadaway, and Penny Marler of Samford University concludes the actual number is much less than that.

They did a "count-based" estimate of church attendance -- in other words, actual attendance figures -- and concluded that only about 20 percent of Americans go to a church on Sunday. That lower figure, says Hadaway, may come as a surprise to many. But he believes part of the problem may be that people see or hear about the big crowds attending the mega-churches and get the impression that church attendance overall is increasing.

"You have Joel Osteen's church with 20,000 or 30,000 people worshipping on an average weekend, and it just seems like religion is going great guns," the researcher says. Other mega-churches like Saddleback Church (Orange County, California), Willow Creek Community Church (near Chicago), Southeast Christian Church (Louisville, Kentucky), and Prestonwood Baptist Church (Plano, Texas) report attendance well over 10,000 on a typical Sunday.

"I think it is creating a false impression of what is happening in the church," Hadaway says of the huge numbers being attributed to such congregations. "There are more giant churches now than there used to be -- but at the same time, the average church is quite small."

He adds that a decline in the number of small congregations has resulted in the "death" of a lot of churches. "The have declining numbers and rising costs -- insurance rates, pastors' salaries, utilities -- making it really tough for many churches across America," he says.

The National Congregations Study in 2000 estimated there were more than 330,000 churches in the United States -- yet only 10 percent of those churches have more than 350 regular participants. As CT points out, that means those 10 percent compose nearly half of those attending religious services in America.

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