Showing Up for One's Faith

Exploring the top reasons Americans choose to attend religious services—or not

If the weather’s good and the choir’s singing, Lilace Guignard leaves home Sunday mornings around 10. It’s a short walk to First Presbyterian Church of Wellsboro, Pennsylvania, where she sings soprano. By then her two teenagers are already at Sunday school.

“It’s important to be part of a church,” says Guignard, whose father and grandfather were Presbyterian ministers. She’s belonged to other denominations but felt “instantly at home” at the Presbyterian church when they moved to Wellsboro, in rural northern Pennsylvania. While she’s more liberal, she says, than some in the congregation, “they’re wonderful people and I feel like my gifts and personality are more than tolerated.” She loves the singing, enjoys the preaching, and was delighted when the pastor invited her to teach on theology and ecology — topics dear to her. First Presbyterian “is the place,” she says, “I feel I’m meant to be.”

The Pew Research Center asked adults who attend religious services at least once or twice a month to give their top reasons for attending. Becoming closer to God (81%), providing their children with a moral foundation (69%), becoming a better person (68%), and seeking comfort in times of trouble/sorrow (66%) were the top contenders.

Praveen Sharma says the weekly services and annual festivals at Bharatiya Hindu Temple outside Philadelphia are “among my greatest passions.”

Before COVID-19 closed the temple’s doors last spring, Praveen and his wife, Neeta, regularly attended Tuesday evening services for Lord Hanuman, a deity much honored in northern India. (Other Hindu and Jain deities are worshipped on other days.) Attending services “keeps the mind focused,” he says, “and it’s a good way of getting away from the distractions of the world.” Honoring the deities, partaking in the festivals and studying scripture also exposed the Sharmas’ Americanized children “to our values,” he says, “and to what is good about our traditions and why we do them."

But the percentage of U.S. adults who regularly attend religious services has been declining in recent years, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center. The decline is directly related to the growth in the number of Americans who say they are religiously unaffiliated. Indeed, when the Center asked adults who attend religious services a few times a year or less to give their top reasons for not attending, 28% said they are not believers.

While Guignard is heading to church, her husband, Jimmy Guignard, is likely on his bike, the wind in his face as he pedals down dirt roads and through state forests — what he calls “The Church of the Spinning Wheel.” 

“In college I started thinking, ‘Why would I want to sit inside a church when I can hang out in creation?’” says Jimmy, a professor at Mansfield University of Pennsylvania. Although raised in a conservative Presbyterian congregation he very much enjoyed, by his late 20s he had shed his beliefs in God or an afterlife. “An afterlife seems to let people off the hook for caring about where they are right now,” he says. He supports his family’s religious worship, “but I reckon I’m an atheist.”

But respondents in the Pew survey cited other reasons for not attending religious services regularly: Thirty-seven percent said they practice their faith in other ways, 23% said they haven’t found the right house of worship, while others cited more practical reasons, such as poor health (9%) or difficulty of travel (7%).

Aly Goldstein is among the 23%. When she lived in Manhattan after college she found a Reform synagogue that she “just loved” and attended services most Friday nights. “It was a nice way to mindfully end the week,” she says.

But since marrying and moving to Philadelphia five years ago she has yet to find a congregation like that one. She and her husband, Jacob, joined a synagogue across town with “good social justice values” and nice people, but she has not yet met many people she has a lot in common with, and she doesn’t feel socially connected. Jacob joined her occasionally prior to COVID-19, she says, but the rigidly prescribed and obligatory conservative services of his youth have turned him off, he has explained, to frequent services as an adult.

Problem is, “now it’s just the cantor, streaming from her home,” because of COVID-19 restrictions. “And without feeling the whole synagogue” the services are “kind of lacking,” she says. Once they have children, Aly plans to raise them observantly. “But for now, being young people living in the city, we prefer to spend Fridays out with friends.”

For many Americans it takes scripture in hand and a congregation around them to draw closer to what is holy. For others, the world itself is a place of worship.

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