Latter-day Saints lead the way in church attendance, but the numbers may not reflect reality

COVID and the rise of the nonreligious have translated to more empty pews nationwide for every religious group — almost.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Sacrament meeting is the main Sunday worship service for Latter-day Saints. U.S. members of the Utah-based faith leader the nation in regular church attendance, though the precise numbers are hotly debated.

Here’s the church. Here’s the steeple. Open the doors and see … only handfuls of people.

There was a time, in the late 1950s, when half of Americans regularly attended church, the highest percentage in U.S. history. Today, according to a new Gallup report, that number clocks in at 3 in 10.

Based on tens of thousands of phone surveys conducted over the past three decades, the report makes one thing as clear as a Wasatch Mountain spring: Latter-day Saints are not to blame for empty pews.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

According to the study, which did not provide a margin of error, 67% of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints living in the United States went to church at least most weeks between 2021 and 2023.

This number, based on more than 600 Latter-day Saint respondents during the two-year period, matches a new study from the B.H. Roberts Foundation, which put the activity rate for those within the “Mormon Corridor” at 71% and 65% for those without.

Research published in 2014 and 2016 put the overall rate in the United States at 77% and 74%, respectively.

For regular Latter-day Saint churchgoers familiar with their congregations’ rolls, these lofty percentages might raise a few eyebrows.

And, in fact, there is one critical weakness shared by all of these studies. All four rely on self-reporting. And, as sociologists will tell anyone who will listen, what people say they do and what they actually do, don’t always line up.

Sure enough, a new report using cellphone data harvested from 2.1 million Americans from April 2019 to the pre-pandemic month of February 2020, indicates the true percentage of Latter-day Saints who attend regularly may be closer to 15% — a jaw-bruising 52 percentage points lower than the number who reported doing so to Gallup just a year or two later.

Latter-day Saints are not the only ones who appear to be grading themselves on a Mount Timpanogos-size curve, either. The same cellphone study put the overall activity rate of U.S. adults at 5% for that same 2019 to 2020 stretch, a sixth of what Gallup measured for 2021 to 2023.

A constant does emerge from all this disparate data, however. No matter how you slice it, Latter-day Saints smoke the competition in terms of turnout.

Rewind the clock 10 years and that was still the case, according to Gallup, which found that 75% of Latter-day Saints attended church regularly from 2011 to 2013, compared to 38% nationwide. The faith also held the top spot for 2000 to 2003, when 68% of Latter-day Saints attended worship services regularly — compared to 42% of all U.S. adults.

Only two groups — Jewish and Muslim Americans — saw their activity rates increase during the study’s 20-year span, both by single digits.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

So what has America’s congregations deflating like a punctured balloon?

According to the Gallup study’s authors, the major driver has to do with the growth in the number of “nones,” Americans with no religious affiliation — 9% in 2000 to 2003 versus 21% in 2021 to 2023. Younger and more politically liberal, this fast-growing cohort overwhelmingly opts out of community worship, if not necessarily a belief in a higher power.

Other studies, meanwhile, suggest COVID-19 likely served as a minor accelerant to preexisting downward trends, with many believers skipping rolling out of bed for weekend services in the wake of the pandemic.