Call me skeptical, but I’ve long been suspicious of reports that somewhere between thirty and forty percent of Americans go to church each week.

To be fair, the basis for my doubt has been largely anecdotal and personal. Looking around our neighborhood, far less than 30% seem to be leaving their homes on Sunday mornings. And when we arrive at church, there always seems to be plenty of open space.

Gallup has been tracking church attendance for decades. According to their data, the golden age of Sunday services was the 1950s, when nearly fifty percent of Americans reportedly went to church each week. There have been spikes over the years, but attendance began trending downward in the ‘60s and obviously plummeted amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, slightly rebounding to 31% last year.

But are nearly 100 million people really worshiping as part of a congregation each week?

It seems University of Chicago economist Devin Pope didn’t think so either. Instead of relying on the answers people traditionally give to pollsters, Pope decided to use cellphone data to confirm who was really going.

If a new study is accurate, people have been lying about going to church. A lot.

Adjusting for those who don’t carry phones, or children who wouldn’t have one at all, Pope has concluded that just five percent of the population attend religious services each week.

Based on a United States population total of 333 million, that would mean 16,650,000 people are corporately worshiping each week. That’s a whole lot of souls, but it also means that 316,350,000 other souls aren’t darkening the doors of any church on a weekly basis.

Interestingly, Pope found that bad weather is unlikely to discourage the five percent of the population who do commit each week, and only about five percent of those stay home when the temperature is less than 25 degrees.

“Church attendance is as vital to a disciple as a transfusion of rich, healthy blood to a sick man,” said D.L. Moody, the 19th century evangelist.

Many of us revere and laud C.S. Lewis, the British writer perhaps best known for The Chronicles of Narnia series, among his many bestsellers. A Christian convert, Lewis apparently didn’t enjoy going to church. He found the services dull and disliked the music, which he called “one long roar.”

But Lewis forced himself to attend because he recognized that Scripture commanded it. Here is how he described the evolution of his journey as a church goer:

When I first became a Christian, about fourteen years ago, I thought that I could do it on my own, by retiring to my rooms and reading theology, and I wouldn’t go to the churches and Gospel Halls; . . . I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music. But as I went on I saw the great merit of it. I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off. I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.

People don’t go to church for all kinds of reasons, from conceit to bitterness, to ignorance and laziness. Virtual church has afforded people an illusion of being connected to a church body, but it’s distant and incomplete.

Sitting in a pew isn’t a panacea to all your problems, but church holds the possibility of not only changing this life – but also the next. Imagine the positive cultural revolution that would occur if as many people went to church as said they did. That may not be enough, but it would be a very good start.


Image from Getty.