Why people go to church

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Gallup released results from a poll that sought to understand why people go to worship.

 

The poll was conducted among respondents who attended worship at least monthly at a church, synagogue, or mosque.  The overwhelming majority were Christians (in line with the general population) which also allowed Gallup to differentiate between Roman Catholics and Protestants.

 

Among the choices given were:

  • A good choir, praise band, cantors or other spiritual music
  • Lots of community outreach and volunteer opportunities
  • Spiritual programs geared toward children and teenagers
  • Sermons or talks that teach you more about scripture
  • Sermons or lectures that help you connect religion to your own life
  • Dynamic religious leaders who are interesting and inspiring
  • Social activities that allow you to get to know people in your community

 

The poll asked those who grew up attending worship at least monthly but who reported that they no longer attended why they chose to not be part of a worshipping community.

 

Their choices included;

  • You don’t feel welcome when you do attend
  • You aren’t very religious
  • You prefer to worship on your own
  • You don’t like organized religion
  • You don’t like being asked for money when you attend
  • You haven’t found a church or other place of worship that you like
  • You don’t have the time
  • You aren’t sure what religion is right for you
  • Poor health or other problems prevent you from going

 

What was the top reason people gave for why they attended worship?  Music? volunteer opportunities?  Nope.  The top response was Sermons.  “Sermons or talks that teach you more about scripture” and “Sermons or lectures that help you connect religion to your own life” were nearly tied at 76% and 75% respectively.

 

All answers in order of preference were

MAJOR FACTOR % MINOR FACTOR %

NOT A FACTOR %

Sermons or talks that teach you more about scripture 76 16 8
Sermons or lectures that help you connect religion to your own life 75 16 8
Spiritual programs geared toward children and teenagers 64 21 15
Lots of community outreach and volunteer opportunities 59 27 13
Dynamic religious leaders who are interesting and inspiring 54 28 17
Social activities that allow you to get to know people in your community 49 36 14
A good choir, praise band, cantors or other spiritual music 38 36 25

 

But why don’t people go to worship?  Why have people lapsed?  Losing faith wasn’t any option, though not being very religious is probably a good proxy and that was the most important reason for a third of respondents, but a general unease or dislike of organized communities were the biggest reasons for the largest number of respondents, though neither was true for half or more of respondents.  Not feeling welcomed was at the bottom of the church.

 

The results for these were:

MAJOR FACTOR % MINOR FACTOR %

NOT A FACTOR %

You prefer to worship on your own 44 21 34
You don’t like organized religion 36 25 37
You aren’t very religious 33 32 33
You haven’t found a church or other place of worship that you like 22 24 53
You don’t have the time 19 28 52
You aren’t sure what religion is right for you 17 23 59
You don’t like being asked for money when you attend 16 29 55
Poor health or other problems prevent you from going 10 19 71
You don’t feel welcome when you do attend 9 25 65

 

The differences between Roman Catholics and Protestants turned out similarly, with the overall ranking for each differing little from the combined “Christian” results.  Quality sermons and youth formation were still the top three.  The one area of real difference was how important each rated the role of music.  Though in each case, it was still the least important factor for attending worship, for Protestants, 44% rated it as major factor, whereas for Roman Catholics, only 22% did so.

 

So what are the lessons we in the Episcopal Church might draw?  Gallup’s own conclusion was that “to expand their ranks, reigniting the interest of lapsed members should be a priority. Converting those who say they aren’t very religious or who don’t like organized religion may be futile. But churches and others may find some success with the message that worshipping in communion with others has benefits that can’t be achieved worshipping alone — addressing the No. 1 reason non-attendees give for not attending.”

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Michael Merriman
Guest
Michael Merriman

Most of the answers have something to do with "What's in it for me?" Pretty far from the Gospel. Not much about the Kingdom of God or Loving others as Jesus loves us. There's part of what's wrong with American Christianity.

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Patricia Penza
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Patricia Penza

I was thinking the same thing! I go to church to worship God. Why was that not an option?

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Member

Sibling Michael, I'm not so sure about that. As we worship God, each of us feels touched by some things more than others. Seems to me both "sermons that teach more about the Scriptures" and "sermons that relate faith to life" aren't far from the Gospel. Besides, we don't have all the possibilities in this post, but only those most significant. They may well have had an opportunity to pick, "Loving others as Jesus loves us."

I am more struck by how low on the list of reasons for not attending is "You don't feel welcomed when you do attend." We worry about being inhospitable; but that may well not be where we're missing engagement. Note how many of the reasons not, as it were, still imply some sense of belief from the respondent. Worship alone, or not the right church, or not sure where you fit - all these still speak to some sense of personal faith.

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David Fulford
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David Fulford

Going to church on a regular basis is about making a commitment to a community and forces us to look at our place in God's Kingdom. Regular attendance in church can be broken into the individual roles we play in worship; i.e. liturgy and our place in the community during the time we spend outside of the liturgy. I jokingly tell people there are three great sacraments in the Episcopal church, Baptism, Communion and Coffee Hour. I think the commitment we make to each other to be part of a community that worships is very different from being a part of worship that is sometimes a community. I believe if we are going to help build the church, we must start with building the community which means we have to help build relationships between with each other so that we can all work on developing much richer relationships with God.

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jeffreyshy
Guest

I wonder, if that's true, why I bother. I drive forty miles to volunteer as organist (and previously choirmaster) for a church that has no music otherwise. If this is true, then I should probably give it up. What's the point any more? We could just post the sermons on a website. Why bother even to keep the doors open? A downloadable file would be sufficient.

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Vicki Kelsey
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Vicki Kelsey

The #1 reason I don't go to church most Sundays: it's too early in the day, and to go to church it means that I have to give up my one chance at REM sleep for the week (Sunday morning is the only morning that I don't have to be in work or classes). I'm pretty sure that God wants me to get REM sleep more than he wants me at Church. It seems like church services are still scheduled as if we lived in the 1950's, and don't match with the lives we've been living for the last few decades.

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Fr. Michael Backlund, PhD
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Fr. Michael Backlund, PhD

I actually agree with this, and I'm a priest. When I was an RC, the Saturday evening eucharist was well attended everywhere. Not practical for most EC congregations. However for me, the sweet spot is a 9:30-10am start for some kind of educational experience for the early-birds, and 11am for the main worship. I think afternoons or evenings would be non-starters for most everyone. But the usual 9 or 10am start times are too early in this day and age, in my opinion. Nevertheless, it's probably a small percentage of people who are bothered by it. Most people continue to experience (unfortunately) some degree of shame and are reluctant to admit that they like - or even need - to sleep in on that one day they can.

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Peggy Hannah
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Peggy Hannah

I'm not sure I agree with that assessment. In our parish, we have a 9am service (Contemporary, with Praise Team) and an 11am Traditional service. Our 9am service is more widely attended than the 11am. We also offer a 5pm non-music service, and a healing service on Thursday evenings. We are also a mix of cradle Episcopalians and those who have found us. We are there for so much more than liturgy, or music, or youth opportunities. We are a family, and we all belong in God's House and at His Table.

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Shawn Rutledge
Guest

Gallup seems to suggest that Catholics don't know why they attend services, "Overall, Catholics rate none of the factors as more important reasons for attending" - (http://news.gallup.com/poll/208529). Maybe they just didn't ask the right question? I would imagine that for many Catholics (and Episcopalians) one of the reasons they attend is the liturgy itself. It is after all one of the main reasons newcomers to my church tell me that they started attending the Episcopal church over other Christian churches. This ritual of common prayer that has been passed down is both comforting and grounding. It gives us a sense of connection to our peers both in our physical church, saying the words around us, and our greater collection of peers around the country and the world praying the same words. It connects us to our past, and all those who have prayed those words before. That's a powerful thing, and I would argue, extremely important to why people continue to come to church.

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Phyllis
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Phyllis

(thanks for commenting, we ask commenters to please use (real) first and last names, thx - editor)

In the middle of a Parish Profile Committee.. music is #2 on the list after sermons . for why people come to and stay at our large, Programmatic parish. . interesting. . . Are you questioning attendees or non-attendees and if so . .. how can you extrapolate that data. Maybe if you become an attendee your priorities change? Non attendees who gave their reasons probably don't even associate music with church,.

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