What Causes People to Attend More Frequently? (The Answer is Not Becoming Born Again).

Featured Image Credit: Holy Trinity Lutheran Church 

by Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University

In previous posts, I have explored how people switch religious affiliations over time, finding that there is not a lot of movement among Protestants or Catholics with about 9 in 10 maintaining their membership across a four year time period. In contrast, of those who say that they were “nothing in particular” about 40% were no longer “nothing in particular” after four years. While shifting affiliation is obviously a way to express an individual’s religious desires, another change could be more subtle, yet more instructive: how often someone attends religious services. Attending church more frequently could indicate a desire to grow in faith or show support for a church or church leader. On the other hand, a lower level of attendance could be the “canary in the coal mine” for someone eventually leaving organized religion. So, is church attendance a force of habit that is largely unchangeable or do people ramp up or down their church going on a regular basis? Are some religious traditions more susceptible to these shifts than others? And emerging from those questions is a bigger one: What factors can lead to someone altering their church-going routine?

To answer these questions I turn again to the CCES (Cooperative Congressional Election Study) Panel which was conducted in 2010, 2012, and 2014. What is useful about a panel is that the survey team asks the same people many of the same questions in each of the waves, which gives researchers an unprecedented ability to track shifts in behavior over a long time period. The CCES asked respondents how often they attended church outside of weddings and funerals in both 2010, 2012, and 2014. They were given choices ranging from “never” to “more than once a week.” The graph below visualizes the shift in church attendance from 2010 to 2014. Each bar to the right of center indicates a one point increase in church attendance, while each bar to the left indicates less attendance. For instance, if someone said that they attended “once or twice a month” in 2010, but then indicated attendance that they attended “once a week” in 2014, they would be counted in the first bar to the right of center as their attendance increased by one point. The largest shift possible is five points, which would be moving from the lowest level of attendance to the highest or vice versa.

The first striking result is how the relative stability of attendance. Of the 9,500 individuals to take part in the panel study, a staggering 62% reported the same level of attendance in 2014 as they did in 2010. The first bar to the left and right also contain a large percentage of the sample. Taken the middle three columns together, 92.4% of Americans indicate a zero or one point change in their church attendance between 2010 and 2014. That’s remarkably small. There is also something else worth noting, however, and that is the bars to the left of center (indicating a lower level of 2014 attendance than 2010) make up 23.4% of the population. On the other hand, only 14.5% of individuals indicate a higher frequency of church attendance. The takeaways are this: attendance is highly stable, but the number of people who are attending with less regularity is nearly 10% more of the population than those who are attending church more regularly. This is not good news for the local church.

Are some major religious traditions seeing a greater downturn in attendance? The data indicates that the answer is no. The most surprising finding is that dividing Protestantism into its two major branches: (evangelicals and mainline) does not reveal any major differences in the percentage of individuals who are attending less. It would seem possible that the decline in affiliation with mainline traditions (that has been written about extensively) may be a function of individuals attending those churches less over time, but there is no evidence of that to be found here. Also, the visualization includes two non-theist traditions: agnostics, and nothing in particular to illustrate the fact that even among these “nones” many still do attend church, albeit infrequently. Note that those who said that they were “nothing in particular” were just as likely to increase their church attendance as evangelicals during the time period of the survey.

While the previous graph looked more broadly at American religion, what would analysis at the level of denomination reveal? The ridgeline plot displays a distribution of a range of values for some of the most well known religious denominations in the United States. Ridges to the right of center indicate a cluster of individuals who are attending more, with ridges to the left representing less frequent attendance. As the ridges move further away from the center this denotes a more dramatic shift in religious attendance. It is instructive to begin by looking at the Mormon distribution. Note how there are very little, if any ridges, that appear at the far outer edges of their distribution. Mormons are steady in their attendance, with very few attending much more or much less. Compare that to the distribution of non denominational Protestants. They have a number of small ridges on both edges of the graph, most noticeably to the right side (indicating an increasing rate of church attendance). It’s clear that there is a great deal of volatility in the attendance patterns of nondenominational Christians. On the other hand, of the mainline traditions listed here: United Methodists, PCUSA, ELCA, and Episcopalians there is little evidence of an attendance collapse occurring in their congregations, but this could possibly be due to low frequency attendance in the first place.

Having seen what traditions lead to an increase or decrease in the rate of attendance, it is valuable to understand what factors lead to a shift in church going. The CCES asks respondents if they would “describe yourself as a born-again or evangelical Christian, or not?” If evangelicalism wants to grow in size it would require more individuals in 2014 to respond affirmatively than in 2010. The results from the CCES are not strongly encouraging. In 2010, 2,438 individuals said that they were born again or evangelical. In 2014, that number increased by a total of four individuals to 2,442. That is obviously not a decline, but it is not one of any exponential growth and is statistically insignificant.

But what about individuals who indicated that had a conversion experience between 2010 and 2014 (meaning that they denied having a born again status in 2010, but then changed their mind by 2014)? One would assume that an individual “giving their heart to Jesus” would show some evidence of their religious behavior changing and would likely attend church at a much higher rate after becoming a born-again Christian. However, the data does not confirm that assumption. Of the 9,500 individuals in the survey, 300 of them became born again from 2010 to 2014. Of that group, half (154) did not change their religious attendance at all. Of the remaining 146, 96 (33%) started attending church more frequently but 50 (16.7%) actually attended church *less* after claiming a born-again status. It’s clear from this data that very few Americans had a life-altering religious experience between 2010 and 2014, with a microscopic 1.6% of individuals becoming born again and attending church more frequently as a result.

While adopting a born-again identity might lead someone to attend church at a higher rate, what factors could lead to an individual dialing back the amount of time that they spend in the pews? Politics has increasingly become a divisive force in American politics and its impact on church-going individuals has just been recently covered by both academics and journalists alike. For example, Paul Djupe, Anand Sokhey, and Jake Neiheisel found that individuals who favored the Democrat party were more likely to leave their churches if they perceived that the congregation was largely made up of Republicans. The New York Times recently ran a piece entitled, “A Quiet Exodus: Why Blacks are Leaving White Evangelical Churches” which argued that minorities often feel excluded in the congregational life of predominantly white churches, especially when politics are brought up.

This data does provide some support the idea that politics can drive individuals away from churches. For those who were attending church at the same rate as well as those who were attending church more (meaning at least a jump of two levels on the scale), there was no difference in the percentage of individuals who became more Republican or those who became more Democrat. This supports the idea that having a political partisanship does not inherently impact the attendance for these groups. However, for those who were attending a lot less, there is a statistically significant difference. In fact for those who were attending at a level that was at least two levels lower in 2014 than 2010, nearly twice as many said that they were also becoming more closely aligned with the Democrat party than the number of people who indicated that they were becoming more Republican. Put another way: if 100 individuals were attending church much less in 2014 than 2010, 70 of them did not change their political affiliation while 19 became more aligned with the Democrats, and 11 became more aligned with the Republican party.

It’s crucial to note that this analysis does not establish a causal relationship. Here is what I can state: It would appear that for some individuals whose politics moved to the left during this four year period, they also began attending church at a much lower rate. However, I cannot say if this is the primary cause of their church exodus. As Djupe and friends note if someone is attending a more left-leaning church, and that the individual’s politics also move to the left that could actually lead to a positive change in church attendance. Obviously, there is a need for greater analysis here.

Seen broadly, attendance is an extremely stable phenomenon. Well over 9 in 10 Americans experienced relatively small changes in their church attendance from 2010 to 2014. Evangelicals were not more likely to attend church at a higher rate than their mainline counterparts. In addition, having a born-again experience does not directly translate into a dramatic increase in church attendance in this data, at least. Finally, for some of those who chose to attend at a lower rate, politics may play a role. While larger discussions are occurring about the population is moving around the religious landscape, it appears that one constant for each of them is their frequency of attendance. It seems the old adage is true here: “old habits die hard.”

Ryan P. Burge teaches at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. He can be contacted via Twitter or his personal website.

Full coding syntax for this analysis is available on my Github.


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