To be considered a regular at a local church by those behind the pulpit and in the pews, you’ll probably need to show up in person at least a couple times a month.
A study from Lifeway Research finds a majority of both U.S. Protestant pastors and churchgoers consider someone to be a regular church attender if they participate twice a month or more. Most also say that is based on how often they attend a worship service, not other church activities.
“There has likely never been unanimity on what qualifies someone as a regular churchgoer,” said Scott McConnell, Lifeway Research executive director. “But the question piqued our interest recently as we have heard church leaders speculating that churchgoers are attending less often and that their mindset of who is a regular attender may be changing.”
Attendance has decreased in the U.S., according to multiple research organizations.
These trends were already pointing downward prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, which only accelerated the declines for many. Last fall Lifeway Research found the average church is currently at 85% of pre-pandemic attendance levels.
Emerging from a period when most U.S. Protestant churches paused physical worship services for a time, pastors and church attendees now are considering what it means to be a regular churchgoer.
For Protestant pastors, 3 in 5 expect attendance at least twice a month, while 1 in 10 include those who attend less than monthly.
Pastors who define regular attendance as less than monthly include those who attend at least once a year (2%), two or three times a year (2%), four or five times a year (2%) or six to 10 times a year (4%). Around a quarter (24%) see those who attend once a month as regular, while a plurality (30%) place the threshold at twice a month.
Others have a higher standard for a regular churchgoer — some 1 in 7 (15%) say three times a month and 13% say weekly. For 3% of pastors, only those who attend more than once a week qualify as a regular attender; another 3% aren’t sure.
On the other end of the spectrum, mainline pastors (30%) are more likely than their evangelical counterparts (20%) to include those who attend once a month among regular churchgoers.
Additionally, pastors at small and normative-sized churches are among the most likely to believe monthly attendance makes someone a regular attender. Around a quarter of those at churches with fewer than 50 people (27%) and those at congregations of 50 to 99 (27%) say someone who attends once a month is a regular churchgoer.
When thinking about what exactly someone must attend to be considered an attender, most pastors look to church services rather than other activities.
Six in 10 Protestant pastors (61%) say they base their idea of a regular churchgoer on how often someone attends a church service. Fewer than 2 in 5 pastors (37%) consider strictly in-person attendance, while around 1 in 4 (24%) also factor in online attendance. A third (33%) look at how often they attend any church activity, with 9% pointing to in-person attendance and 24% basing it on physical or online involvement. Few (6%) say they aren’t sure.
Younger pastors, those 18–44, are among the most likely to base their churchgoer definition on attending church services in person (42%) and among the least likely to include online worship service attendance (17%). Evangelical pastors (45%) are also more likely than mainline pastors (25%) to point to physically attending church services.
View from the pews
The more frequently a churchgoer attends services the more likely they are to place a higher threshold for being considered a regular church attender.
Yet even among those who attend less than weekly, a large portion identify weekly or more as the standard for a regular attendee. More than 2 in 5 of those who attend one time a month (47%), two times a month (41%) or three times a month (48%) point to the weekly-or-more standard.
Hispanic (21%) and African American churchgoers (20%) are around twice as likely as Anglo churchgoers (11%) to say being a regular churchgoer requires attending more than once a week. Churchgoers with evangelical beliefs (55%) are more likely than those without evangelical beliefs (38%) to say the standard is weekly attendance.