If American religion were traded at a stock exchange, your broker might be advising you to sell. The trend lines don’t look great and haven’t for quite some time.
Social scientists and religious leaders have lots of theories about the long, slow slide, blaming it on everything from the internet to the politicization of conservative Christianity.
A new Pew Research Center study offers something different: a survey of 4,729 Americans telling us precisely why they do (or don’t) attend religious services.
Some of their answers are unsurprising. Americans who don’t believe in religion don’t often attend church. Because duh.
But the survey complicates other stereotypes about Americans who rarely, if ever, attend religious services. As it turns out, they’re all not atheists, or even members of the “spiritual but not religious” crowd. Many say religion is important in their lives, and lean conservative, politically.
“The people who attend religious services less often are not a monolithic group,” said Becka Alper, a research associate at Pew.
First, here are the top 10 reasons given by Americans who attend religious services at least once a month, according to Pew. Survey respondents were allowed to give more than one reason. The percentage refers to people who said this was a “very important” reason for their decision:
- To become closer to God. (81%)
- So their children will have a moral foundation. (69%)
- To become a better person. (68%)
- For comfort in times of trouble or sorrow. (66%)
- They find the sermons valuable. (59%)
- To be part of a faith community. (57%)
- To continue their family’s religious traditions. (37%)
- They feel obligated to go. (31%)
- To meet new people or socialize. (19%)
- To please their family, spouse or partner. (16%)
African-Americans are more likely than whites or Latinos to say that becoming closer to God, being a better person and finding spiritual solace in tough times are top reasons for attending religious services. The weekly sermon is less a draw for Catholics than other Christians.
More women say there are a variety of reasons for going to religious services, while men more commonly say they sit in the pew to please their spouse.
A healthy slice of adults younger than 30 say they visit the sanctuary mainly to socialize. Perhaps coincidentally, they are also less likely than older churchgoers to say they feel God’s presence at services.
Why are older people more likely to feel God at church? Is there something in our makeup that opens us to religious experiences as we age? Or maybe more Americans are searching outside of sanctuaries for the divine.
According to Pew, that was the top reason survey respondents gave for skipping regular religious services. Here’s the whole list:
- They practice their faith in “other ways.” (37%)
- They are not believers. (28%)
- No reason is “very important.” (26%)
- They haven’t found a house of worship they like. (23%)
- They don’t like the sermons. (18%)
- They don’t feel welcome. (14%)
- They don’t have the time. (12%)
- Poor health or mobility. (9%)
- No house of worship in their area. (7%)
When you read the phrase “practice their faith in other ways,” it may be tempting to visualize dreadlocked Jubus and Thoreau wannabees wandering barefoot around Walden Pond.
But that’s not the picture Pew’s data paints.
The believers most likely to say they practice their faith in “other ways” aren’t spiritual freelancers with a disdain for discipline. They’re Republican women in their 50s, and lot of them are Christians.
Of those who believe in religion but don’t regularly attend religious services, nearly 7 in 10 still identify with a particular tradition, including 6 in 10 who say they are Christian.
More than half the people who believe but don’t attend religious services regularly are women. Many say they haven’t found a house of worship they like and so practice their faith in other ways.
And why so many women failed to find a house of worship they like? More than 6 in 10 said it’s because they have poor health or difficulty getting around. More than half (54%) said it’s because they haven’t felt welcomed by congregations.
That’s especially true of African-Americans, both men and women, who are more likely to say they don’t go to religious services because they don’t feel welcomed or there is no worship space in their area.
So, what does all this mean?
American pastors, imams and rabbis have spent endless amounts of time trying to cater to millennials’ tastes, or at least what they perceive to be millennials’ tastes: Coffee bars. Hip young clergy. Mission trips to exotic locales.
But this study suggests that there is an under-served group of believers who seem like they’d actually like to go to religious services – if only someone could help get them there and welcome them when they arrive.