‘The Congregation Is More Important Than the Denomination’

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Last week, my colleague Emma wrote about a new survey from Pew that looks at America’s churchgoing habits. One of the surprising findings: Among the 20 percent of Americans who say they go to church much less than they used to, the most common reason for attending fewer services is that they have trouble fitting them into their schedules. Emma writes:

While it’s easy to empathize with the hassle of trying to wake up and rally kids to go sit still for several hours every Sunday morning, this explanation is interesting for a slightly different reason: It suggests that many people view religious services as optional in a way they might not have in the past. Fifty or 60 years ago, churches, in particular, were a center of social and cultural life in America. For many people, that’s still the case, but the survey suggests that many people may be creating their social lives outside of a religious context—or perhaps forgoing that kind of social connection altogether.

On the other hand, some readers’ experience shows that for those who do go to church, the social and cultural aspects of religion are alive and well—and for some, the community that church offers may even be more of a draw than faith. One commenter writes:

As an atheist, I still attend church every once in a while because I have no other easy means of socialization with people in my age group. I’m in a college town but several years past college age, and even though the Bible jibber jabber no longer appeals to me, I've been able to connect with peers who share my athletic, artistic, and culinary interests by being willing to sit through an hour of preaching every couple weeks.

A second reader would agree:

The cross-generational aspect of a church community is something I have always relished. A church is one of the few places where those over 70 and people in their 20s, 30s, and younger who aren't related (important!) mix on a very regular basis.

In addition, because it is a place where you go frequently and often share very personal information, it is a good place to meet—and get to become friends with—a diverse group of people.  It takes me out of my work-world bubble. Not only that, but as a fairly new transplant to downtown Chicago, it is a place where as a single 50+ woman I can go to meet people that’s not a bar, online dating, or a health club.

This reader sums it up:

People mistakenly refer to churches as being religious institutions when in reality, churches are, first and foremost, social institutions. The congregation is more important than the denomination. In a church, your primary interactions are with other people in the church; if all you cared about was connecting with God, you could do that by yourself.

And that’s exactly why this reader stays away:

My wife and I have found church to be a cauldron of political activity and having all too often nothing to do with spirituality. We have seen preachers pray for war, tell their congregations who to vote for. I can watch CSPAN if that is what church is going to be about. I have time for church, but I cannot find a church as fulfilling as an hour in my backyard watching nature or curling up with a good book.

Have you started or stopped going to church for reasons that are more social than religious? Are you an atheist who enjoys religious services, or a devout believer who prefers to practice alone? Has participating in a religious community brought you closer to people whose beliefs differ from your own? And if you used to find a community at church but no longer do, how have you replaced those social connections? We’d like to hear from you: hello@theatlantic.com.