Hadaway says that many church groups—especially larger ones such as Catholic, some mainline, and Southern Baptist—have developed standard procedures for counts, leading him to believe that the figures are accurate. Also, he says, when it comes to church attendance, he's more concerned that congregations are overestimating their attendance, not underestimating it.[snip]
In explaining the gap between his research and Gallup polls, Hadaway thinks that many people are answering with what they usually do, instead of what they did the last week. He also believes that people are more lenient with themselves when they miss church because of vacation or Sunday morning conflicts.
"As life has become more complicated in the last 30 years," Hadaway says, "perhaps people are inventing more excused absences than they used to."
The success of megachurches may be masking attendance struggles in smaller congregations. According to the NCS, only 10 percent of American congregations have more than 350 regular participants, yet those congregations compose nearly half of those attending religious services in the United States. Hadaway says smaller churches indeed are in decline, though the research didn't touch on that.
"You have Joel Osteen's church with 20,000 or 30,000 people worshipping on an average weekend, and it just seems like religion is going great guns," Hadaway says. "I think it is creating a false impression of what is happening in the church. There are more giant churches now than there used to be—but at the same time, the average church is quite small. The decline among these small congregations has led to the death of a lot of churches. They have declining numbers and rising costs—insurance rates, pastors' salaries, utilities—making it really tough for many churches across America."
"I would say that we are right in saying that 4 out of every 10 Americans represent themselves as being regular churchgoers," he says. "But that does not mean that they are in church 52 weeks a year."[Catholics have standard procedures for counts? Really? Must have missed that memo. I doubt that in the bigger parishes most of the pastoral staff know everyone who's there and not there, or, for that matter, have any sophisticated way of keeping track of people. Besides, many Catholics, perhaps the more peripheral ones, I'd suspect, just go to Mass wherever they can with no strong parish affiliation. Then there's the 2/3 who just ... well ... don't.]