Study: How Loyal are Churchgoers?

Lutherans More Loyal than Pentecostals and Non-Denominational Churchgoers

A new study measured how loyal churchgoers are to the current church they attend and found that one third of them are not completely positive they will remain attendants at the same church.

Research conducted for Facts & Trends magazine revealed that the average length of time American Protestant adults have been attending the same church is 13.7 years. However, excluding the minority who cite a very long stay at the church, a more accurate median figure, the study noted, is 6.6 years.

For older adults (55 and over), the average length of attendance at the same congregation is 15 years.

Overall, 13 percent of churchgoers say they have been attending the current congregations for less than a year; 16 percent have been at the same church for one to two years; 11 percent for three to four years; 18 percent for five to nine years; 16 percent for 10 to 19 years; and 26 percent for two decades or longer.

The study found that the most loyal congregants are in the Lutheran and Presbyterian denominations. Among Lutherans, the average attendance is 12.5 years and for Presbyterians, 10.6 years.

The least loyal churchgoers were found among non-denominational churches whose congregants, on average, have been attending for 3.9 years and Pentecostal/charismatic denominations where the median length of attendance is 5 years.

Participation in the church, however, was less frequent among Lutherans. The study showed that 46 percent of Lutherans attend services less than weekly and only 15 percent participate in worship or activities more than once a week.

Among all Protestant churchgoers, 30 percent typically attend services or activities at the church less than weekly; 29 percent attend weekly; and 41 percent attend more than once a week.

Frequent participation is seen among Pentecostals and Baptists. In general, the study found, nearly half (46 percent) of the people attending compared to 36 percent of those attending mainline Protestant churches.

And people under 35 years of age are less likely to participate in activities or services more than four times per month.

In terms of what church they will attend in the near future, two thirds of all churchgoers said they will definitely attend the same church; 25 percent said they will "probably" attend the same church; 7 percent said they may or may not do so; and 1 percent said they were already making plans to leave their current church.

Denominational and age differences were few when it came to church loyalty.

Differences, however, were seen between those highly involved in the church and those less likely to participate frequently. The study found that 74 percent of those who attend weekly or more definitely plan to attend the same congregation, while 48 percent of those who attend less than once a week definitely plan to remain in the same church. Also, 72 percent of adults who have attended the same church for four or more years definitely plan to continue their attendance while 62 percent of those who have attended for one to three years and 49 percent of those who have attended for less than a year say the same.

Denominational loyalty was not very strong. Study participants were placed in a situation where they had to change churches. From that, 28 percent of all churchgoers said they would only consider attending a church of the exact same denomination they currently attend; 41 percent would strongly prefer this but would have at least some openness to another denomination; 14 percent show some preference to their current denomination but are open to others; 16 percent say it does not matter to them; and two percent frankly would prefer to switch denomination.

Lutherans were found to be the most loyal group with 52 percent of them saying they would only consider attending a church within their current denomination. Among Methodists, 16 percent say they would only attend their current denomination but 59 percent of them would strongly prefer to remain in their denomination. Baptists are about average in their denominational loyalty, the study found.

On the opposite end, Pentecostals are almost twice as likely as average to say the same denomination of the church does not matter to them. And only one out of 10 people from non-denominational churches would only consider another non-denominational church. That also applied to Presbyterians.

"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,” said Ron Sellers, president of Ellison Research, which conducted the study, in the report. “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.”

At the same time, Sellers warned that churches should not assume a level of loyalty among churchgoers.

"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,” he 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.”

The study was conducted by Ellison Research on a representative sample of 1,184 adults who attend a Protestant church in the U.S. at least once in a typical month.