By Bob Smietana
When Americans want to be close to God, they go to church. Unless they’ve found some other way to meet up with the Almighty.
Americans who attend religious services and those who skip them may be looking for the same thing—a connection with God, according to a new survey from Pew Research.
The most common single reason for attending services is that people want to be close to God. And the most common single reason for skipping services is that people found some other way to practice their faith.
Eighty-one percent of those who attend services at least once a month say becoming closer to God is a very important reason they attend services. More than 6 in 10 (61 percent) list that as their primary reason. Two-thirds attend to provide a moral foundation for their kids (69 percent), to become a better person (68 percent), or to find comfort in times of trouble (66 percent).
More than half say they go to religious services because the sermons are valuable (59 percent) or they want to be part of a community of faith (57 percent). However, Protestants are roughly twice as likely as Catholics to say the sermons are a very important reason (71 percent to 36 percent).
Those who attend services also seem to do to so because they want to, not because they have to. Around a third of Americans attend because of their family’s religious tradition (37 percent) or a sense of obligation (31 percent). Few attend to appease their spouse or family (16 percent) or to meet new people (19 percent).
Two percent or less chose family tradition, pleasing a family member, religious obligation, or to meet new people as their primary reason to attending.
The reasons for skipping services are “complicated,” says Pew’s report.
“Among those who attend no more than a few times a year, about three-in-ten say they do not go to religious services for a simple reason: They are not believers,” says Pew. “But a much larger share stay away not because of a lack of faith, but for other reasons.”
Among those who attend a few times a year less, 37 percent say they have found some other way to practice their faith. Among evangelical Protestants that number climbs to 46 percent.
A similar number of Americans have issues with how services are conducted—either they haven’t found a church or house of worship they like (23 percent), they don’t like the sermons (18 percent), or they don’t feel welcome (14 percent). Among evangelicals who attend sporadically, 33 percent say they haven’t found a church home they like.
Few Americans say their issues with church attendance are logistical. Twelve percent say they don’t have the time, 9 percent have poor health or difficulty getting around, and only 7 percent say there isn’t a church or house of worship for their religion in their area.
Many of those who skip services still say they are religious. Seven in 10 identify with a religious group. Six in 10 say they are Christian. And, according to Pew, “most say religion is either ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ important in their lives.”
“To be sure,” says Pew, “[those who cite reasons other than a lack of belief for avoiding church] are not as religious as Americans who report going regularly to religious services. But by several standard measures, they are much more religious than those who say, ‘I am not a believer.’”
A 2016 study from Lifeway Research found that Americans who skip services aren’t necessarily hostile to matters of faith. About half (47 percent) say they freely discuss religion if the topic comes up. Only a third (32 percent) say they are not religious.
However, only a third (35 percent) say they would attend a church service if invited.
“I’m just not interested,” Andrew Jacobsohn, a college student, told Facts & Trends last year, after being asked why he doesn’t go to church. It appears he’s not alone.
BOB SMIETANA (@BobSmietana) is senior writer for Facts & Trends.