Church Attendance, Problems of Measurement, and Interpreting Indicators: A Study of Religious Practice in the United States, 1975–2010


  • Note: This article is an equal collaboration between these authors. Names are listed alphabetically.

  • Acknowledgments: The authors would like to thank the three reviewers for their helpful comments, which made an important contribution to the aim of making the issues discussed in the article clearer.


Church attendance is usually measured in surveys by asking a direct question about frequency of churchgoing over a preset period of time, which is typically a year. Different studies have cast doubt over the validity of this indicator as it tends to overestimate actual attendance to a significant degree. The aim of this article is to compare data on church attendance provided by two different types of research conducted in the United States between 1975 and 2010: survey data (GSS) and data obtained from time use surveys (ATUS). This comparison has three main objectives: (1) to confirm the hypothesis that survey data tend to overestimate actual attendance; (2) to show that this overestimation is not constant over time and space, but tends to vary in an erratic and unpredictable way; and (3) to demonstrate that data provided by time use surveys are more reliable than the frequencies of churchgoing provided by traditional surveys when the objective is to identify trends in religiosity in a population.