If you want 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 attend twice a month or more. Most also say that’s 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, executive director of Lifeway Research. “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.”
Church attendance has decreased in the U.S., according to studies from multiple research organizations. Those trends were already pointing downward prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, which only accelerated the churchgoing declines for many. Last fall, Lifeway Research found the average church is currently at 85% of their 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 are now considering what it means to be a regular churchgoer.
For U.S. Protestant pastors to consider someone in their congregation a regular churchgoer, 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%) places the threshold at twice a month.
Others have a higher standard for a regular churchgoer. Around 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 at their church. Another 3% aren’t sure.
“There are practical implications to how often someone attends church,” said McConnell. “Those attending a few times a year are there enough to be known. Whereas those attending weekly likely have deeper relationships and can be counted on to serve. Those at church half the time can only serve if some rotation system is in place.”
The oldest pastors are most likely to have the highest threshold, as 22% of pastors 65 and older say a regular churchgoer attends weekly or more. African American (36%) and Hispanic pastors (25%) are more likely than white pastors (14%) to say at least weekly attendance is the standard for a regular church attender.
Those in the South (20%) are more likely than pastors in the Northeast (12%) or Midwest (11%) to say only those who attend weekly or more are regular churchgoers.
Denominationally, Pentecostal (26%), Restorationist Movement (26%) and Baptist pastors (23%) are more likely than Methodist (11%), Lutheran (4%) and Presbyterian/Reformed pastors (4%) to consider only those who attend weekly or more as a regular attender in their congregation.
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 less 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 U.S. Protestant pastors (61%) say they base their idea of a regular churchgoer on how often someone attends a church service. Less 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
Churchgoers themselves are likely to place the standard of regular church attendance near their own frequency. In a study of those who attend church at least once a month, 86% say a regular churchgoer is someone who attends once a month or more. Specifically, 60% of respondents attend weekly or more, and 68% of those who attend weekly or more consider someone to be a regular churchgoer if they attend with the same regularity.
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.
“The study of churchgoers only provides insights from those attending each month, but there seems to be a consensus among that group that a regular churchgoer should be involved in the life of a congregation more often than not,” said McConnell. “Pastors’ perceptions of a regular churchgoer often appear broader, while those in the pew lean closer to a weekly standard.”
Hispanic (21%) and African American churchgoers (20%) are around twice as likely as white 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.
Similarly to pastors, churchgoers are more likely to connect being a regular church attender with attending church services rather than other activities. Most (57%) use the church service as their basis, including 29% who focus exclusively on in-person attendance and 28% who include attending services online. Around a third (34%) focus on any type of church activity, with 14% pointing to only in-person attendance and 20% including online attendance. Around 1 in 10 (9%) aren’t sure.
Churchgoers with evangelical beliefs (33%) are more likely than those without (26%) to base regular churchgoing on how often someone attends church services in person.