One-third of all churchgoers have less than full loyalty to their church

(Original release date: February 8, 2007) Research conducted for Facts & Trends magazine shows one-third of all American Protestant churchgoers feel less than positive they will continue attending the same church in the near future. And if they do switch, only about one out of four would only consider another church in the same denomination.

Facts & Trends is published bimonthly by LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

The findings are from a study conducted for Facts & Trends by Ellison Research (Phoenix, Ariz.) among a representative sample of 1,184 adults who attend a Protestant church in the U.S. at least once in a typical month. The study examined loyalty to denominations and specific churches, as well as length and frequency of attendance.

The average length of time adults have been attending the same church is 13.7 years.  However, averages can be skewed by a relatively small number of people who cite very high numbers, and some churchgoers have been attending the same congregation for decades.  Probably a more accurate reflection of churchgoers in general is the median figure of 6.6 years, which means half of all churchgoers have been attending the same church for less time than this, and half for a greater length of time.

Out of all churchgoers, 13 percent have been attending their current congregation for less than a year.  Another 16 percent have been at their current church for one to two years, 11 percent for three to four years, 18 percent for five to nine years, 16 percent for ten to 19 years, and 26 percent have been attending the same congregation for two decades or longer. 

People who are 55 or older are particularly likely to be long-time participants in the same church; the median length of attendance at the same congregation is 15 years among older adults.

Lutheran and Presbyterian denominations are particularly likely to have people attending the same church for years and years; the median length of attendance among Lutherans is 12.5 years, while it is 10.6 years for Presbyterian congregations.  Non-denominational churches (median of 3.9 years) and Pentecostal/charismatic denominations (median of 5.0 years) are among the ones with the shortest time of attendance.

Ironically, while Lutheran churches have people going to the same congregation for many years, participation is less frequent than in other denominational groups.  Among all Protestant churchgoers, 30 percent typically attend services or activities at the church less than every week, 29 percent go weekly, and 41 percent attend more than once a week (this could entail one worship service and one Bible study per week, for instance).  But among Lutherans, 46 percent attend less than weekly, while just 15 percent participate in worship or activities more than once a week. 

The denominational groups most likely to show frequent (i.e. more than once a week) attendance or participation in church are Pentecostals and Baptists.  In general, people attending evangelical churches are more likely to be involved more than four times per month than are those attending mainline Protestant churches (46 percent to 36 percent).  People under the age of 35 are also less likely than others to be involved more than four times per month.

Two-thirds of all churchgoers said they definitely will continue to attend the same church in the near future.  Twenty-five percent said they will “probably” continue attending the same church, while 7 percent said they may or may not do so, and 1 percent were already making plans to leave their current church.

Loyalty to a specific church does not vary much among different types of churchgoers; there are no substantial differences by age, gender, income levels, race, or other factors, for instance.  Methodists are slightly more likely than average to express loyalty to their current church, but denominational differences are few.

What does vary is loyalty by length and frequency of attendance.  Forty-eight percent of those who attend less than once a week definitely plan to continue attending the same congregation, compared to 74 percent among those who attend weekly or more.  Similarly, 72 percent of adults who’ve attended the same church for four or more years definitely plan to continue doing so, versus 62 percent among those who have attended for one to three years, and 49 percent for those who have attended their current church for less than a year.

Although most people are not planning to switch, the study looked at denominational loyalty by asking what their feelings would be if they had to change churches (for instance, if their current church shut its doors or if they moved to a different area). 

Twenty-eight percent of all churchgoers said they would only consider attending a church of the exact same denomination they attend right now.  Another 41 percent would strongly prefer this, but would have at least some openness to another denomination.  Fourteen percent show some preference to their current denomination, but are open to others.  Sixteen percent say the exact denomination of the church really doesn’t matter to them, while two percent frankly would prefer to switch denominations.

There are not strong differences in denominational loyalty between people in mainline and evangelical churches, but there are some very distinct differences among different major denominational groups.  Lutherans are clearly the most loyal group, as 52 percent of them say they would only consider attending a church within their current denomination.  Methodists are less likely than average to say they would only attend their current denomination (16 percent), but more likely to say they would strongly prefer to remain in their denomination (59 percent).  Baptists are about average in their denominational loyalty.

Among the least denominationally loyal are people attending Pentecostal, Presbyterian, and non-denominational churches.  Pentecostals are almost twice as likely as average to say the exact denomination of the church does not matter to them.  Only one out of ten people from non-denominational churches would only consider another non-denominational church, and the same is true for Presbyterians (compared to 28 percent of all churchgoers).

Denominational loyalty is strongly connected with the length of time people have spent in their current congregation.  The longer they have been attending the same church, the more likely they are to say they strongly prefer or would only consider a church in that same denomination.

Ron Sellers, president of Ellison Research, noted that the study may help pastors think about and understand their own congregation a bit more.  “In the typical Protestant church, about one out of every eight people in the congregation has been attending that church for less than a year,” Sellers observed.  “What should this mean for the typical church?  Does the church have a strategic plan for involving newcomers in the life of the congregation?  Does the church leadership make the assumption that everyone in the church knows how the church works and what it believes?  These things are very important when so many relatively new people are in the typical congregation.”

Sellers also noted that it would be a mistake for individual churches or denominations to assume a level of loyalty among attendees which may not exist.  “In the typical Protestant congregation, one-third of the people in the pews are not definite in their plans to continue attending that church.  If they were to leave, three out of ten would not consider it a big deal to switch denominations,” Sellers said.  “It’s important that pastors or denominational leaders don’t automatically assume the people in the pews are ‘our people,’ because the data suggests a significant minority don’t hold a level of loyalty that would make that an accurate assumption.”

STUDY DETAILS:
Ellison Research has conducted a series of studies among clergy and laity for Facts & Trends. Facts & Trends is a bimonthly magazine produced by the corporate communications office of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention. It is designed to assist pastors, church staff and denominational leaders in their roles of ministry by informing them about LifeWay resources and how they relate to current issues in Christian ministry. For information about Facts & Trends, contact Chris Turner at 615-251-2307.

Length of time attending current church, by denominational group…

Length of Time at Current Church All Southern Baptist Other Baptist Meth-
odist
Luth-
eran
Pente-
costal
Presby-
terian
Non-
Denom
All Others
Less than a year 13% 14% 12% 10% 8% 11% 11% 21% 11%
1 – 2 years 16 14 12 11 20 29 12 19 12
3 – 4 years 11 10 12 15 6 9 9 16 10

5 – 9 years

18 20 17 16 13 24 16 25 15
10 – 19 years 16 12 16 21 15 15 21 11 18
20 years or more 26 30 31 27 38 12 31 8 34
Average years at the same church 13.7 15.9 16.5 13.8 17.9 8.1 18.1 6.3 16.7
Median years at the same church 6.6 6.5 7.9 7.7 12.5 5.0 10.6 3.9 10.4

Frequency of church attendance, by denominational group…

Attendance in a Typical Month (any services or activities) All Southern Baptist Other Baptist Meth-
odist
Luth-
eran
Pente-
costal
Presby-
terian
Non-
Denom
All Others
Less than once a week 30% 28% 18% 32% 46% 28% 31% 30% 25%
Once a week 29 22 27 36 39 15 29 34 29
More than once a week 41 50 55 34 15 57 40 36 46

Frequency of church attendance, by age, theology, and length of time at the same church…

Attendance in a Typical Month (any services or activities) Age <35 Age 35 – 54 Age 55+ Mainline Evangelical <1 Year Same Church 1 – 3 Years Same Church 4+ Years Same Church
Less than once a week 36% 31% 23% 28% 28% 37% 43% 24%
Once a week 28 24 33 36 26 32 24 30
More than once a week 36 45 45 36 46 31 33 46

Likelihood of continuing to attend the same church, by denominational group…

How Likely to Continue Attending Their Current Church All Southern Baptist Other Baptist Meth-
odist
Luth-
eran
Pente-
costal
Presby-
terian
Non-
Denom
All Others
Definitely will continue to attend this church 67% 63% 69% 76% 68% 62% 68% 61% 70%
Probably will continue 25 29 25 22 25 24 28 28 22
May or may not continue 7 6 6 3 6 12 4 9 6
Probably will not continue 1 1 -- -- -- 1 -- 1 1
Definitely will not continue -- 1 -- -- 1 1 -- -- --

Likelihood of looking for a church of the same denomination if they had to switch, by denominational group…

How Likely to Look for the Same Denomination if They Changed Churches All Southern Baptist Other Baptist Meth-
odist
Luth-
eran
Pente-
costal
Presby-
terian
Non-
Denom
All Others
Would only consider same denomination 28% 30% 31% 16% 52% 22% 10% 10% 37%
Would strongly prefer same denomination 41 46 39 59 30 38 46 45 32
Would somewhat prefer same denomination 14 9 13 16 13 9 22 21 15
Exact denomination doesn’t matter to you 16 12 15 9 4 30 16 24 15
Somewhat prefer different denomination 1 1 1 -- -- -- 6 -- --
Strongly prefer different denomination 1 2 1 -- -- -- -- -- 1

Likelihood of looking for a church of the same denomination if they had to switch, by age, theology, and length of time at the same church…

How Likely to Look for the Same Denomination if They Changed Churches Age <35 Age 35 – 54 Age 55+ Mainline Evangelical <1 Year Current Church 1 – 3 Years Current Church 4+ Years Current Church
Would only consider same denomination 25% 28% 30% 21% 30% 16% 22% 32%
Would strongly prefer same denomination 38 42 43 51 39 35 41 42
Would somewhat prefer same denomination 18 16 10 15 13 17 16 13
Exact denomination doesn’t matter to you 20 13 15 11 18 29 18 12
Somewhat prefer different denomination -- -- 2 -- 1 -- 2 --
Strongly prefer different denomination -- 1 1 1 -- 2 -- --