The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

What’s Hurting U.S. Church Attendance?

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

Judging by the evangelical megachurches—from McLean Bible outside the nation’s capital, to Willow Creek in suburban Chicago, to Saddleback in Southern California—the country may appear to be undergoing a revival as vibrant as the Protestant and Catholic resurgence of the 1950s. Yet Robert Wuthnow, a leading sociologist at Princeton University, believes media coverage of these enterprises obscures a more sober reality. Reviewing marriage rates and measures of religiosity since the 1970s, the Princeton scholar sees instead a “serious erosion” of religious vitality driven largely by the nation’s retreat from marriage.

In an address to policymakers in the nation’s capital, Wuthnow showcased data from the General Social Surveys (GSS) conducted by National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, a measure that he believes is methodologically superior to polling done by Pew, CNN, or Gallup. When the GSS began in 1973, the data indicated that about 35 percent of the American public reported attending church “nearly every week” or more. Although the percentage rose slightly in the early 1980s, it returned to 35 percent by 1993. More recent figures (2002 through 2006), however, reveal a drop of 5 to 6 percentage points across the board and an even sharper decline among young adults. Whereas 35 percent of adults in their 30s worshipped regularly during the 1970s, only about 28 percent do so today.

Wuthnow attributes “nearly all” the decline in American church attendance to the fact that young people today, relative to their parents, are marrying later, having fewer children, and having them later. Which means that the country simply has more single adults than ever. He notes that roughly half of Americans in their 20s and 30s are not married, the majority of which do not attend church. The other half is married, and the majority of this half does attend church.

As Wuthnow puts it, “Marriage, it turns out, has a stronger statistical effect on churchgoing than having no children or some children, having more children, or having school-age children. Those matter, but not as much as might be expected, and possibly because the growing number of people who have children out of wedlock tend not to attend church, while those who have children after marriage do.”

(Robert Wuthnow, “Myths About American Religion,” Heritage Lectures No. 1049, The Heritage Foundation, Washington, D.C., October 18, 2007.)