American Religion and Church Attendance: Softening? Fudging?

Book Review: American Religion: Contemporary Trends by Mark Chaves
Hardcover: 160 pages Publisher: Princeton University Press (August 28, 2011)

“All things considered, Americans’ religious involvement is softening. This is not happening fast, and religious involvement in the United States remains high by world standards. Calling the overall trend a softening of religious involvement rather than an outright decline is my way of balancing between… the still high level of religious involvement… and… the unmistakable signs of change” (p.54).

Mark Chaves is a major contributor to the sociology of religion, known for his ground breaking work both on congregations and church attendance. Chaves stated aim is to provide the general public with a short, aggregate, and descriptive summary of what is changing and what is not in American religion. This book is far shorter than American Grace. It lacks richness of data, congregational vignettes, and interpretation. But the dynamism and vitality of American religion can obscure its vulnerability. Chaves provides a better description of its soft underbelly.

In the italicized portions of this review, I will use Chaves’ metaphor of softness to provide a framework and sharper edge for his descriptive trends (offered in regular type and his more academic style). I will propose that fudging, i.e. to deal vaguely and inadequately with something (in this case change) so as to promote a desired image, is the better metaphor for what is happening to American religion.

Softening at the Congregational Level

The outstanding example of softening of religious involvement is church attendance. For many verbal adherence to the ideal of weekly attendance has replaced actual practice of that ideal. Chaves has contributed significantly to our understanding of church attendance. More people say they attend church weekly than actually attend weekly. They report themselves as weekly church goers when they show up more than monthly but less than weekly. This exaggeration has a very substantial effect upon reported church attendance. Chaves reports the true percentage of people in church on a weekend is closer to 25% rather than the 40% often quoted from polls!

Softening of religious attendance may be related to the decreasing number of children growing up in households where parents attend church weekly. Over generational cohorts, Chaves finds a decline of people reporting they attended weekly at age twelve and a rise of people reporting they had no religion at age sixteen. More strikingly, he reports that 70% of people who were born before 1900 had fathers who attended church regularly. However, only 45% of those born after 1970 had fathers who regularly attended church.

Congregations are making major adaptations such as the increased use of electronic media. Chaves found that 74% of churchgoers are in congregations with websites and 79% are in congregations that use e-mail. Sounds like a good idea. But are these easy ways for members to keep in touch with the congregation without going to church as often?

Increasing informality of worship (seen more often in Protestant than in Catholic congregations) is another example of adaption. These include more: saying amen, applause, raising of hands, jumping and shouting, use of visual equipment and drums (the last two are increasing even among Catholics). Is greater informality of worship a part of the softening of denominational identity?

Softening at the Level of Religions and Denominational Identity

There is a softening of religious identity. When asked whether a person’s religious preference is “Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, some other religion, or no religion?” more people are answering “some other religion” which they identify as “Christian.” Chaves reports “no religion” has risen from 3% in 1957 to 17% in 2008. However many of the “no religion” people pray and some attend church.

Congregations are abandoning or loosing organization ties with national denominations. Chaves through innovative random sample studies of congregations found one in five Protestant congregations was independent of any denomination; and one in five Protestants worship in those independent churches. If unaffiliated congregations were in one denomination, they would be the second largest in persons and have the largest number of congregations. Chaves reports that while annual income of denominationally affiliated congregations increased faster than inflation, the amount of money passed to the national denomination decreased in real terms.

The softening of religious identity may be related to the increasing positive appreciation of other religions. This diversity is experienced personally in marriages, the extended family, and close friends. Chaves claims more than acceptance is happening. Rather, it is positive appreciation of another religion by experiencing it in people who are close to us. Three-quarters of Americans say that a religion other than their own offers a true path to God.

The softening of denominational identity may be related to a decline of interest in clerical vocations and of confidence in religious leaders. Chaves reports that ten in a thousand college freshmen expected to become clergy in the 1960s; that has declined to three in a thousand. Vocations have declined among the most academically talented. Chaves finds that between 1973 and 2008 the number of people having great confidence in religious leaders declined from 35% to 25%.

Is softening due to some one cause? Or are many fudging in a variety of ways?

In the past some have labeled this softening “secularization.” But labels explain nothing. A more cogent sociological theory maintains that Conservative Protestant denominations with strong beliefs and values continue to flourish while Mainline Protestant denominations without a strong message are declining. It is a Marketing 101 view of religion, i.e. those who have clear and simple messages succeed. Chaves spends a whole chapter debunking misconceptions about this issue. Research has established that 80% of the difference in numbers between Conservative and Liberal Protestants has been due to the earlier and greater decline of birth rates among Liberal Protestants.

Religion is about people as well as beliefs and values. Demographic changes, especially fertility and migration play a strong role in how many Catholics, Mainline Protestants, and Conservative Protestants there will be in the future. As was pointed out in the post Secularism, Fundamentalism, or Catholicism? The USA in 2043! the demographics argue for Catholicism in 2043 even though the media may focus upon secularism and fundamentalism. Excessive concern about beliefs and values and forgetting about people, fertility and migration is one type of fudging.

Is much of the softening of church attendance due to fudging in liturgical churches?

Since differences in fertility account for 80% of the greater numbers of Conservative Protestants perhaps there is an equally simple explanation for their far greater church attendance. Chaves reports that in 1970 only a quarter of those who attended weekly religious services were in predominantly white Conservative Protestant denominations. Today about 40 percent of the weekly attendees are in those denominations. Church attendance like fertility has declined more in some denominations than in others. Why?

In the post last summer, Liturgical Year and Church Attendance,  I summarized the work of Paul Olson which challenges the strictness of beliefs and values explanation for strong church attendance among Conservative Protestants. Olson found that conservative Protestant congregations that emphasized the liturgical year had lower average church attendance, too. He argued that the way to higher average church attendance was to emphasize attendance every week rather than seasonally, and to provide high quality services throughout the year. Conservative congregations that did these had higher average church attendance over the year.

Since 1970 there has been more and more competition for weekend Church attendance from sources both inside and outside the home. People who go to liturgical churches can fudge that they attend weekly when in fact they attend weekly during some seasons and not others. Non-liturgical denominations, mostly conservative, don’t have that easy option to fudge. Is there a slippery slope from seasonal weekly attendance, to Christmas and Easter attendance, and finally non-attendance?

Liturgical denominations have some very good resources available if they wish to emphasize weekly church attendance. The encyclical Dies Domini (1998) provides a very positive argument for the Lord’s Day as the Day of Days, the Primordial Feast. Also there is extensive sociological evidence that weekly church attendance is a powerful predictor of better health, happiness, and giving of time, talent and treasure to civic as well as religious organizations. Like Conservative Churches these would combine a strong theological appeal with an appeal to social values.

However raising the average church attendance in liturgical churches would require sustained high quality services year around, probably for at least several years, perhaps a decade. What might be a reasonable outcome if this were well done? CARA claims in any given average week, 31% of Catholics are attending. During Lent and Advent, Mass attendance increases into the mid-40% range and on Christmas and Easter, an estimated 68% of Catholics attend.I suspect high quality services could reasonably bring average weekly attendance into the mid-40% range. CARA estimates that the present Christmas and Easter rates are close to their corrected weekly attendance rates for the legendary 1950s. If liturgical churches changed their programming for low attendance, and their attendance rates gradually approached those of conservative non-liturgical churches, our view of religion in America could dramatically change.

Fudging is a better metaphor than softening for the changing vitality of American religion. Americans and their religious leaders are adapting, but often in vague and inadequate ways. People are focusing upon their desired explanations of what is or should be, selecting favorable facts while ignoring inconvenient evidence.

Jack Rakosky  has an interdisciplinary doctorate in psychology and sociology, and spent twenty years in applied research and program evaluation in the public mental health system. His current main interest is voluntarism, especially among highly educated people at retirement age.


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