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A Quick Question 

Did you attend Church last week? 


The quick answer:   Yes, you say to Gallup - but were you really in church?  Probably not, at least according to several religion researchers.

The longer answer:  Just as men tend to exaggerate the number of sexual partners they’ve had, committed church members tend to exaggerate the number of times they attend church. And for many of the same reasons.

That’s the conclusion of two studies on church attendance performed in 1993 and 1996 by C. Kirk Hadaway and P.L. Marler. The two studies attempt to address a mathematical conundrum. Year after year, 40 percent of Americans tell Gallup pollsters they attended church or synagogue in the past week. Yet church membership has remained flat while the population has grown. Hadaway and Marler decided to take a closer look to see if church members were misreporting the numbers. 

In 1993, Hadaway, Marler and researcher Mark Chaves examined attendance at Protestant churches in one Ohio county and in 18 Roman Catholic dioceses across the country. Instead of 40 percent of Protestants attending church each week, they found 20 percent. Instead of the 50 percent of Catholics who say they attend church, they found 28 percent.

In response to criticism that researchers did not provide a direct connection between the date people reported their attendance and the date researchers counted them, another survey was devised. In this 1996 survey, researchers chose a 2,000-member middle-class, white evangelical church in the deep South. (They did not identify it by name.)

This time, they posted researchers across the sanctuary to count heads and then interviewed a sample of 300 church members and asked them if they attended church that Sunday.

The results confirmed their thesis. Of the 300 people interviewed, 209 said they attended worship the previous Sunday, or about 70 percent. But if 70 percent of the members had indeed been at church, attendance should have been 1,710. In fact, it was 984. Researchers expected some misreporting, so they asked the 209 members who said they had been at church if they attended a worship service or some other type of church meeting. When asked in this way, 182 members said they participated in worship. But even that self-reported attendance total remains too high — at 61 percent. Had 61 percent of church members been at services there should have been 1,489 heads at worship and not 984.

Taking their study one step further, researchers attempted to identify misreporters by examining Sunday school rosters. Unlike church worship, Sunday school attendance is taken using pre-printed attendance forms that are checked off every week. Here too, 60 percent of those interviewed said they attended Sunday School. In fact, only 38 percent were actually seen in the classrooms.

Researchers then found a curious relationship between those who say they attend church frequently and those who misreported their attendance at Sunday school. People who say they attend church frequently are more likely to misreport their Sunday School attendance. Conversely, those who say they say they attend church infrequently are less likely to misreport Sunday school attendance.

Does that mean frequent churchgoers are less honest? Not necessarily. Instead, misreporting seems to be tied to people’s perception of themselves as active churchgoers. Americans tend to overrate desirable behavior. That’s why people overestimate the number of times they voted or the number of times they gave money to the poor.

It’s the same reason men overestimate the number of sexual partners they’ve had. Over-reporting may be a way of affirming an activity people find desirable.

So long as people hold church in great esteem they will exaggerate their attendance at worship. But the results of these two studies have other implications as well. They suggest that inflated church attendance figures have produced a distorted image of religion in America. "If real," the researchers concluded, "a large attendance gap suggests that many assumptions about the robustness and exceptional nature of religion in America should be modified."

More of Marler and Hadaway’s work can be found at the online articles section of our web site.


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