Why People Attend Church

Gallup Examines What Matters Most to Churchgoers

By Warren Cole Smith Published on May 9, 2017

Why do people attend church?

It’s a pretty straightforward question. But even among Christians — especially Christian leaders, writers and pundits who make a living commenting on such things — the answers are many and varied. People attend church because of culture and tradition, because of the music, because of a sense of community, because it’s the right thing to do, because of the children’s program, because of the hospitality and feeling of warmth and well-being.

The Gallup Organization decided to ask people who actually attend church why they attended, and the answers they got are helpful … sort of.

The Results are In

Gallup asked people if various aspects of worship were a “major factor,” a “minor factor,” or “not a factor” in their church attendance. About 76 percent of respondents said “sermons or talks that teach you more about scripture” was a major factor. If that’s all you knew about the survey, you might say that Bible-based expository preaching was the way to fill pews. Such a finding warms the hearts of the theologically conservative. And they would not be wrong. Lots of the largest churches in the country follow that strategy.

But, as they say in infomercials: “Wait, there’s more!”

Almost as many people — 75 percent — said “sermons or talks that help you connect religion to your own life” were a major factor. What does this mean? Are we talking about topical Bible studies? “How to have a better marriage”? “What the Bible says about money”? Or could we be straying even further away from expository preaching into Joel Osteen territory, into what Christian Smith has called “therapeutic moralistic deism”?

To complicate matters even further, children’s and teens’ programs were a major factor for 64 percent of respondents, and “community outreach and volunteer activities” mattered to 54 percent. Indeed, given the size of these numbers, it is likely that a significant number of people checked every box. All of these things were major factors.

Don’t Sweat the Music

So what is a pastor or other church leader to make of these numbers? First, repeat after me: “It’s not about the music.” Evangelicals have been engaged in “worship wars” for 40 years. The “traditional vs. contemporary” divide has consumed a lot of energy, but this survey suggests that it’s mostly an “inside baseball” squabble.

I’m not saying it’s not important. It’s really important. Music is didactic. That’s a fancy way of saying it teaches. Damon of Athens wrote more than 2000 years ago, “Give me the songs of a people, and I care not who writes its laws.” I would modify Damon: “Give me the songs of a church, and I care not who writes its doctrinal statement.”

So I’m not saying music is not important. I’m just saying the music is not generally a reason people come or do not come to your church. Use music that is biblical and authentic to your tradition of worship. Don’t worry about whether it will “attract a crowd” or not.

Walk the Walk

Secondly, faith without works is dead. Have you heard that before? Good. It’s biblical. But it is also what this survey is saying. People want sound preaching and opportunities for service. It’s not an “either/or.” It’s “both/and.” This is not a bad thing; it is a very good thing. Great churches provide opportunities for both growth and service, knowing that one feeds the other.

Finally, and like unto the second: It’s not one thing, it’s everything. In my private life, I don’t get to say, “I’m an unfaithful husband, but that’s okay because I’m a good provider for my family.” No, being a responsible husband, or wife, or parent, means mastering a number of skills, not all of them a natural part of one’s gifting.

So it is with church leaders, and churches. This reality can be overwhelming for pastors, but that’s because they try to do it all themselves rather than rely on another reality of the church: It is one body, but many members.

So this Gallup survey, while more suggestive than definitive, has much to teach us. Perhaps the most important lesson is this: There are no formulas. Some water. Some sow. But God brings the increase.


Warren Cole Smith is an investigative journalist and author as well as the Colson Center vice president for mission advancement.

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  • Why attend? How about because it’s the sabbath and you have an obligation to God to attend? It’s one of the Ten Commandments.

    • Lance Adkins

      What? There is no obligation to have a Sabbath day unless you were an ancient Israelite. There was no Sabbath for like 1000 years before Moses. It is not part of the moral law.

      • Craig Roberts

        One of the ten commandments is not a part of the moral law? Interesting…

      • m-nj

        actually, observing a day of physical rest (note: spiritual “work” is still expected/required in the form of worship) is in some ways deeper than the moral law given through Moses. 6 days of work and 1 day of rest was the pattern God Himself modeled in the creation, and it is likely that from Adam to Moses this pattern was followed even if it was not codified. further, when the 7th day Sabbath was instituted, it was expounded with a reference back to the creation week.

        God knew we needed “rest”, and all the moreso after the Fall, since our labors would now be “by the sweat of our brow”. futhermore, Jesus stated clearly that the Sabbath was created FOR man, not man for the Sabbath.

    • Craig Roberts

      “God said to.” is no longer sufficient. The real question is, “What’s in it for me?”

    • Paul

      Serious question, where does it say we must attend Church on the sabbath? And what day is the sabbath?

      • Fourth of the ten commandments:
        “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.”

        • Paul

          Yes, well aware of that verse. Now please tell me where it says we must attend Church then. And again what day is the sabbath?

          • Because that’s what it means to remember the holy day. Be lucky that’s all it is. Deuteronomy lists all sorts of things that you must do on the Sabbath. Look up what Orthodox Jews are required to do.

          • Paul

            ‘Because’ may work when dealing with a 2 year old but around here you’re going to have to do better. Plus you keep avoiding the question of which day is the sabbath.

          • Go make your own religion and don’t bother me.

          • Paul

            In other words you have no scripture to back up what you’re saying. Got it.

          • First, you’ve got no manners. You came over to me to ask a question and I replied to best my time allowed. Maybe if you went to church you would have some better manners.

            Second you must not be too swift if you can;t Google it yourself: Look up Sabbath and Lord’s Day.

            Third, no matter what answer you are given, you won’t accept it. I really don’t care. Do me a favor and never reply back to me.

          • Paul

            Been going to church for at least 30 years. I’ve learned some things in that time, one is to confront the misapplication of scripture. If you go to church on Sunday and claim it is to obey the law of the sabbath commanded in Exodus, then any practicing Jew can tell you you’re off a day. Not only that but Paul goes to great length to illustrate the problem of the law. Why do most Christians meet on Sunday? It’s just what they do and few really stop to wonder why.

          • A respectful response. Thank you.

            Sunday is the Christian Sabbath based on two things. (1) When Christ instituted the new covenant (last supper) Christians felt a need to alter it from the Jewish last day of the week to the first. (2) Christ’s resurrection was on the first day of the week, and so it was natural to honor that day. Christ the new Adam, Sunday the new Sabbath. This was apparently from the very first years after Christ. Act of the Apostles actually records it in Acts 20:7:
            “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight.”

            The disciples came together to “break break,” which is essentially a religious service. The events in Acts predates the writing of any the Gospels.

            But true no where does it say in the scriptures that Sunday is the new holy day. It is based on tradition. That’s the problem with sola scriptura. Not everything is written down. You have to read the Church fathers to get a complete picture of the practices. I have to admit I learned quite a bit in researching for your questions, so I do thank you. Apparently there was an over lap where many Christians kept the Sabbath on Saturday, or perhaps observed both days and observed the Lord’s Day on Sunday. Eventually when the church became legal and came out from underground, it was standardized to a Sunday combination of Sabbath and Lord’s Day.

            I can tell you that in Catholicism it’s an actual sin to miss Sunday Mass unless you have a very good reason. I don’t know how Protestants regard missing church on Sunday, but I suspect similar. Even if you’re in one of those denominations that keep Sabbath on Saturday, I believe you are still obligated to go.

            Now you argue, where does it say you have to? The Old Testament commandments still require it. You might have argued that we no longer follow the OT rules. Not quite accurate. We no longer follow the ritual parts of the OT rules, such as circumcision and not eating pork. But we still follow the moral rules of the OT, such as the ten commandments.

            Now you seem to feel that you don’t need to go to church to honor and remember the holy day. Perhaps you do something to honor the day. I don’t know what your denomination says on that, but here’s a theological reason why should. Honoring on your own is essentially a fragmenting. Religious gathering is a uniting. Not only do you unite and pass the faith on to the next generations, you come together as a body. When you come together as a group, you are being united into the body of Christ. That is one of the essences of Christianity.

            Peace to you Paul.

    • James Doyle

      Manny I always also relate to Christ in the Garden of Gethsemany were he says “Will you not wait one hour with me “.As to that Bampot Paul don’t even answer those trolls on Christian sites block the idiots right away.

      • I don’t know if he’s a troll, but he has no manners. I was kind enough to respond and he turns on me.

  • Tim H

    This is interesting to me as a Catholic. To me the thing to go to church for is to worship God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So I’m not understanding some of this. How is a good sermon or a lecture an act of worshipping God? Same question for a children’s programs? (I’m not trying to be a smart aleck. I could use some help understanding.) Thank you for anyone who responds.

    • Bryan

      In some ways there are two parts to the question: 1) Why do you attend church? & 2) Why do you attend the church that you attend? Remember the key to this whole study: “The Gallup Organization decided to ask people who actually attend church why they attended…” These are people that already go to church whether because of culture, tradition, or conviction.
      You mention worship so let’s start there. Worship is, in my opinion, more than singing songs and praying corporately. Worship is a lifestyle, an attitude or posture that you put on and must continue to put on daily. In that sense, other aspects of the service, tithing, sermons, dancing, drama, etc. all have their place as part of worshiping. Songs, music, arts in general engage our emotions and can move us to our souls. Sermons and study engage our minds and can separate soul and flesh, worldly from non-worldly, right-thinking from vanity. All of this points us back to Christ, the object of our worship. From this we can worship wherever these ideas and practices come together and the issue of which church to attend is negligible.
      Children’s programs is more of a debatable subject. This is where preference makes more of a difference. Obviously this is an issue for the portion of the church population with kids in certain age groups and, mostly likely, not an issue for the part that doesn’t. The good of the children’s programs is that it presents Christ in ways that make sense to children. It helps the children to worship in ways they understand instead of sitting bored because they don’t understand the words being said or what’s going on. The thought process behind this is that if you engage the children at a young age with the gospel, they’ll be more likely to stick around as adults. You can agree or disagree with the logic behind that as you wish.
      I’m not sure if I started to answer your questions or not.

    • James Doyle

      Tim I am a Catholic and I go for exactly the same reason that and I need to go . I was told once you think your better than others because you go to Mass .My answer back was i don’t think am better than anyone but if I stopped going I would maybe be a lot worse than anyone. God Bless.

    • Paul

      Is a good sermon or lecture an act of worshipping God? By this I’m assuming you mean listening to the sermon or lecture rather than delivering it. I’m also assuming the good sermon or lecture is revealing God’s truth in the Bible and instructing about His ways. If I am intent on following Jesus then a good sermon or lecture will help teach and guide me in that submission. It reinforces that God’s ways are greater than my ways and I worship Him in that submission. Now if the sermon is unbiblical and teaches us to do something other than God’s will then we’re engaging in idol worship, putting something to be greater than God.

      As for children’s programs, unfortunately I think for a lot of parents it’s first a form of babysitting and entertainment so the parent’s can have a break from the kids. These parents measure the success of it by the kids safety and whether or not the kids had a good time. Whether that results in genuine worship depends on the details of the particular children’s program.

  • Liz Litts

    I go to church because God said through Paul “Do not forsake the assambling of yourselves together. I go because it’s the family that God put me in and I am there to bless and serve them. I go to get sound teaching in the word of God. But most of all I go because I want to gather with others that love Jesus and encourage me to do the same. The bottom line is it’s my service and obeience to The Lord I love.

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