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Counting churchgoers

In googling for “parking lot Stolzenberg,” I came across a series of articles in the American Sociological Review on the measurement of church attendance in the United States–an interesting topic in its own right and also a great example for teaching the concept of total survey error in a sampling class. The exchange begins with an article by C. Kirk Haraway, Penny Long Marler, and Mark Chaves in 1993:

Characterizations of religious life in the United States typically reference poll data on church attendance. Consistently high levels of participation reported in these data sug-gest an exceptionally religious population, little affected by secularizing trends. This picture of vitality, however, contradicts other empirical evidence indicating declining strength among many religious institutions. Using a variety of data sources and data collection procedures, we estimate that church attendance rates for Protestants and Catholics are, in fact, approximately one-half the generally accepted levels.

The tables in the paper are really ugly (as are nearly all tables) and the graph does the mistake of listing cities alphabetically (rather than in some meaningful order), but the paper is interesting.

Then in 1998 came follow-up articles by Theodore Caplow, Michael Hout and Andrew Greeley, and Robert Woodberry, along with a reply by Hadaway, Marler, and Chaves. The discussion concludes with an article by Tom Smith and an article by Stanley Presser and LInda Stinson, who report,

Compared to conventional interviewer-administered questions about attendance at religious services, self-administered items and time-use items should minimize social desirability pressures. In fact, they each reduce claims of weekly attendance by about one-third. This difference in measurment approach does not generally affect associations between attendance and demographic characteristics. It does, however, alter the observed trend in religious attendance over time: In contrast to the almost constant attendance rate recorded by conventional interview-admininstered items, approaches minimizing social desirability bias reveal that weekly attendance has declined continuously oer the past three decades. These results provide support for the hypothesis that Americal has become more secularized, and they demonstrate the role of mode of administration in reducing measurement error.

Lots to think about here, both substantively and methodologically. I plan to use this as an example in my survey sampling class this fall.


  1. Anon says:

    No way around it, this is the best blog on the web. Perhaps Marginal Revolution, but the content here is very interesting.

  2. John S. says:

    The results don't surprise me at all, but in some circles they must have created quite a controversy. Why then did it take them five years to follow up on the article? American Sociological Review must have a very full publication schedule.

  3. Geoff says:

    What book are you using for your Sampling class? And will your lectures be up on youtube? Thanks!

  4. I've heard from Bible-belters that almost everyone who doesn't go to church, pretends by dressing in church clothes around Sunday brunch time.