Whose Lie Is It Anyway? Americans Aren’t Honest About Church Attendance

 by Aaron Earls

Americans like the idea of church attendance much more than they actually like attending church. But they don’t want you to know that.

As has been the case for at least a decade, the number of Americans who say they attend church weekly, occasionally, seldom, or never has remained fairly static.

This is despite the “rise of the Nones,” where the religiously unaffiliated account for some 20 percent of the U.S. population.

A recent survey from Public Religion Research Institute, however, found that those numbers change dramatically when respondents answer online instead of over the the phone.

PRRI compared the numbers from the phone interviews and those from the online survey and discovered people are much more likely to say they attend church at least occasionally when they are talking with another person.

Over the phone, 36 percent of people say they attend weekly, 33 percent occasionally, and 30 percent seldom or never. When the same question was asked online, 31 percent say they attend weekly,

“This points to a paradox in the country: On the one hand we have the rise of the unaffiliated, but at the same time the social expectation of church attendance is still alive and well, and we can see it as people inflate their reports of church attendance in live interviews,” Robert P. Jones, the institute’s chief executive, told the New York Times.

“We have a long history of religious attendance being connected with all kinds of upright moral behavior, and we still see the vestiges of that.”

White evangelical Protestants and black Protestants had the smallest gap between the phone interviews and online answers, while Catholics, Mainline Protestants, and even the unaffiliated had significant differences between the two methods.

This chart from the New York Times illustrates the seeming dishonesty.

NYT chart church attendance

In perhaps one of the more surprising aspects of the study, respondents in the Northeast and West had a much larger gap between the phone interview and online answers than did those in the South.

Roughly one-third (34%) of telephone respondents living in the Northeast say they seldom or never attend religious services, compared to nearly half (49%) who report online they seldom or never attend. Americans living in the West demonstrate equally dramatic differences in reported attendance depending on the administered survey mode. Among westerners, one-third (33%) of telephone respondents say they seldom or never attend services, while a majority (52%) of online respondents say the same. In contrast, southern respondents are much less likely to exaggerate their levels of attendance. Twenty-seven percent of telephone respondents from the South report that they seldom or never attend services compared to 35% of online survey respondents.

Logan Keck, pastor of Christ the King in Boston, Massachusetts, said he wasn’t surprised by the numbers from the Northeast, due to the religious history of the area.

Keck pointed to the Catholic heritage and the culture of church membership among Congregational and Unitarian churches, as reasons why people in New England were likely to exaggerate their frequency of church attendance.

“Many people say, ‘I should go to church,’ but they still don’t really go,” Keck says. “They may have a family church they claim to attend, but they don’t go because they don’t see any value in it.”

Despite the similar numbers, pastors in the West say the story is much different there.

Scott Brewer pastors Meadowbrook Church in Redmond, Washington, near Seattle. He finds people open about their lack of attendance.

“My non-churched friends seem to have no value for church attendance and even consider it intelligent and sophisticated not to attend,” he says.

In Tacoma, Washington, Bobby Higginbotham, pastor of The Pathway, says people are not so much disconnected from the church, as “they’ve never been connected.”

In his conversations, people are usually very open about their spiritual views until they discover he is a pastor.

“When people find out I’m a pastor they always begin to share any and every experience they have relating to God or church,” he says.

Because it often derails honest discussions, Higginbotham says that people’s tendency to speak differently to a pastor can be “really annoying and unhelpful.”

While it may not be the case for every person in every area of the country, PRRI claims their study demonstrates the continued existence of a “social desirability effect” when it comes to church attendance in America.

This means that people feel pressure to say they go to church, even if that is not actually the case.

Who knows what this says about a social desirability effect on honesty.

Have you noticed this tendency when inviting someone to church? Is this a positive or negative that people exaggerate their church attendance or are dishonest when discussing how often they go?

Aaron Earls (@WardrobeDoor) is online editor of FactsAndTrends.net.

Oak church pews of the “Mother Church of Country Music,” Photo by Glen Rose


  1. Is it possible that the numbers differ because of the demographics of those who are willing answer phone surveys (we never do) vs those who would do an online survey? The phone answerers might in fact attend church more than the online answerers. How do you account for this statistically?

    • Aaron Earls says:

      This is from the published findings at PRRI:

      In the current study, we test the effect of removing the public factor by comparing the results of a series of identical questions that measure religious behavior, belief and belonging across different modes of administration: an online self-administered survey and a live interviewer telephone survey. Both surveys were conducted in 2013 among a random sample of adults age 18 and older currently living in the U.S. The telephone survey included 2,002 adult respondents; 60% were interviewed on a landline telephone and 40% were interviewed on a cellular telephone. The online survey was conducted among a random sample of 2,317 adults who are part of GfK’s Knowledge Panel, a nationally representative probability sample of the U.S. population recruited through a process of address-based sampling.

      Their methodology works to eliminate those kinds of demographic issues. As much as possible, they are looking to have two sample groups that reflect each other and the U.S. population at large. Clearly, no survey like this is perfect (much less the interpretation of the data), but they do attempt to account for the variances that would occur with online and phone surveys.

Speak Your Mind