Church Attendance Decline & What to do About It

Forty years ago, as the falloff in Sunday Mass attendance by American Catholics was becoming too obvious to ignore, Catholic voices began to be raised here and there saying it didn’t really matter. “You aren’t a good Catholic just because you go to church,” these people seemed to enjoy telling us. “What counts is what you do outside church.”

Two responses, which too seldom were offered at the time, were relevant to that. One was that evidence was lacking to show that most Catholics who skipped Mass had found other ways of expressing their presumed religious fervor. The other reply, arguably more to the point, was that the Second Vatican Council had only lately stressed the centrality of Sunday Eucharist in Catholic life, and staying away from Mass was hardly consistent with that.

And now, four decades later? A new study underlines the evident reality that the slippage in church attendance persists. It also offers the cold comfort of situating the decline in Mass attendance in the context of a decline in churchgoing by American Christians generally. The notable exceptions, it seems, are white evangelical Protestants, for whom the weekly attendance rate is around 60%. Hats off to them! For the rest, including Catholics, the numbers range from depressing to dismal.

The study, by a group called the Public Religion Research Institute, also compares what people say about their church attendance in live telephone interviews with what they say when they are answering questions in the impersonal medium of an online questionnaire. In brief, they are more likely to admit to not going to church in the latter situation than when actually speaking to somebody else.

Although the media made much of this finding, this particular disparity has always been recognized and often been reported, at least in general terms. In the present instance, its significance as it applies to the Catholic respondents can be seen in the fact that while 41% claimed to go to Mass weekly or more often when talking to an interviewer, that fell to 37% when the question was answered online. The same pattern existed for other Mass attendance categories: “occasionally”—44% on the phone, 34% online; “seldom or never”—15% telephone, 33% online (up a whopping 18%).

Attendance was, as noted, considerably higher among white evangelical Protestants (and among black Protestants too) and substantially lower among white mainline Protestants. Not surprisingly, attendance at church was lowest among the religiously unaffiliated, with “seldom or never” the response of 73% in phone interviews and 91% online.

If there is any consolation to be found here, it may actually reside in people’s tendency to overstate their church attendance when they are talking to someone else. Reflecting, as it obviously does, the universal human craving to look good in others’ eyes, this suggests that some people feel a residual sense of embarrassment verging on guilt about not going to church as often as they know they should.

Here perhaps is an opening here for getting at least some of these people back to regular attendance. It’s a simple argument: If you want X, you have to do Y—for instance, if you want to be a fan of the local ball team, you have to watch them play once in a while or at least you need to read about them in the sports page. Just so, if you want to be a friend of God, the minimal requirement is dropping in at church and saying hello on Sunday. That’s what friends do.

image: Shutterstock

Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, D.C. You can email him at

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage

  • Antonia


    I was young during Vatican 2 and thought it was great. Aggiornamento: opening the windows to refresh the room.

    Now in my seventies I see Vatican 2 as either a ghastly mistake or a misinterpretation of a ghastly mistake,

    What do I mean by this? Well at least in Australia and probably in the rest of the developed world pre-Vatican 2 Catholics were fervent. They unashamedly – no proudly! – held eucharistic processions. They confessed regularly and taught their children to do likewise. They enjoyed a beautiful heritage of music so sublime that it is today only preserved by secularists.

    Vatican 2 destroyed that fervent culture. Something went wrong.

  • Almario Javier

    To a large degree that was unfortunately the last gasp of an old immigrant faith, at least in settler countries like Australia, the US, or Argentina. People started leaving the Catholic ghetto, entering into mixed marriages, having more non-Catholic friends (often from the War) and so forth. There is significant anecdotal evidence by priests that when ‘reliable’ contraception became commercially available a lot of adults would no longer be receiving communion, the rail was almost overwhelmingly under 18. This was in the offing before the Council. Arguably the Council might have stemmed the tide somewhat, even.

    Certainly in places like the Philippines this didn’t happen, despite at the time having a progressing economy and a baby boom generation, despite the best efforts of the government and certain American policymakers.

    The roots of this secularisation, unfortunately, came before the Council, and we can see this in how a lot of Protestant countries experienced similar phenomena at the same time.

  • Jeanette

    Yes, and too many Catholics today are very foolish. Our Catholic Faith is the most beautiful and prized possession of our lives, yet some are oblivious to that. That’s the vision we need to give them. Those who have fallen-away from the Faith have filled the void with something else. But what? Secularism, with all it’s failures? Oh please! Do failed marriages, lives ruined by drug/alcohol abuse, sexual promiscuity and license that excuse using other people and letting them use us, dishonest practices in the workplace or shady politicians inspire or uplift anyone? That’s what secularism has to offer. It’s been reported that depression is on the rise in society. No wonder, with the many broken lives that secularism causes!
    We need to remind our Catholic brothers and sisters that God is first and foremost in our lives and that nothing can take His place. We need to remind ourselves and others too that operating on the level of mediocrity is not good enough because it’s a small step from mediocrity to failure. (Putting that in spiritual terms, mediocrity or lukewarmness is the devil in disguise.) The wisdom and genius of Catholicism, the beauty and richness of our Faith, is the antidote to the social and moral ills of our time. We need to re-commit ourselves to greatness which our beautiful Catholic Faith inspires and stop all the excuses for not doing so. We need to love and appreciate the treasure which God has given us in His Church, which includes being committed to and enthusiastic about Her wise teachings, the Mass and Sacraments, and the abundant life which the Church offers us. What a beautiful gift we have been given! Thank you God.

  • Yurikos

    There are at least two obvious reasons why people have not only stopped going to church, but have lost their faith completely. Firstly the less serious: the 12 – 30 years old demographic find the liturgy of the Mass to be archaic, badly translated, often irrelevant, given the poverty of the sermons preached, and not addressing the real issues that affect them overall. The second reason is equally pertinent: the sexual abuse crisis engendered by a hierarchy that has too often blamed the victims, not dealt with perpetrators in a swift and decisive manner, and the image of the clergy that has been tarnished by scandal. Unless these matters are properly and justly dealt with, you will find that the number of faithful will continue to decline.

  • isabel Kilian

    When people are raised in abusive families, they become damaged and often times they want to leave and not look back. What makes anyone think it is different in abusive spiritual families or Parishes? Everytime someone complains about the rock music or the baskets used for the offering or the homilies teaching us we are all ok, they are told, that’s an abuse and not a part of the real Catholic Faith. After a while, you get tired of all the abuses and you begin to search for authentic Catholic Truth and when you find it you are so righteously angry at all that was stolen from you that you leave and never go back. You know with certainty that you were raised in an abusive spiritual family and are in need of healing. By the grace of God, you find a parish where people are Catholic, where they value the Mass and the Sacraments and make great personal sacrifices to attend a Mass or go to Eucharistic Adoration. You meet people who travel 200 miles to get to Mass and you begin to value it too. You hear sacred music that sounds like angels and you know that it is not of this world completely. You see reverence and people praying for hours on their knees and you say, Truly God is here! You experience REAL Christian Charity where the parishoners pray for your needs, visit you in your sorrow and offer you spiritual gifts such as a Mass for your intentions, a blessed Rosary that they made themselves, or a veil that a woman made with her hands so that you didn’t have to search for one. When your prayers are answered, you are CERTAIN it was the love of your parish family that offered to God their hearts for love of you that received that response from God. This is what I found at my Latin Parish that is obedient to Rome, even when some in Rome mock her and call her a fad or when the elite Catholic media persecute you. I will never go back to an abusive Catholic Parish where the Truth can not be found or heard,w here Jesus is set aside in a corner and where the people worship themselves and parish counsils and all their “minististries” instead of God truly present in the Eucharist.

    Here is a truth I received this past Sunday at the Mass. If a Catholic does not attend Mass on Sunday, without a very serious reason, he is committing a Mortal Sin and One Mortal sin can seperate the soul from God for all eternity. Make your choice. Go to Mass or Go to Hell! Love to all!

  • Gloria

    I’m not catholic but I can tell you that unemployment kills church growth. Look at the great depression when it hit. Most Americans stopped giving to charity and church membership dropped. If it wasn’t for Roosevelt New Deal I wonder what would have happened.