Sermon Content Is What Appeals Most to Churchgoers

by Lydia Saad


  • Three in four worshippers say sermons a major factor in why they go
  • Youth programs, outreach and volunteer opportunities also important
  • Preferring to worship solo is main reason non-attenders eschew services

WASHINGTON, D.C. — As Easter and Passover help fill churches and synagogues this week, a new Gallup poll suggests the content of the sermons could be the most important factor in how soon worshippers return. Gallup measured a total of seven different reasons why those who attend a place of worship at least monthly say they go. Three in four worshippers noted sermons or talks that either teach about scripture or help people connect religion to their own lives as major factors spurring their attendance.

Reasons for Attending Church or Other Place of Worship
Is each of the following a major factor, a minor factor or not a factor in why you attend church or a place of worship?
Major factor Minor factor Not a factor
% % %
Sermons or talks that teach you more about scripture 76 16 8
Sermons or lectures that help you connect religion to your own life 75 16 8
Spiritual programs geared toward children and teenagers 64 21 15
Lots of community outreach and volunteer opportunities 59 27 13
Dynamic religious leaders who are interesting and inspiring 54 28 17
Social activities that allow you to get to know people in your community 49 36 14
A good choir, praise band, cantors or other spiritual music 38 36 25
Based on adults who attend church, synagogue or mosque monthly or more often. % No opinion not shown
GALLUP, MARCH 9-29, 2017

Religious programs for children and teenagers are a major draw for just under two in three worshippers. Providing opportunities for community outreach or volunteering, as well as having dynamic religious leaders are highly important to majorities as well.

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About half of regular worshippers say that getting to know people in their community is a major factor in why they attend, while 38% cite having good music, such as a choir or praise band.

These results are based on a nationally representative survey of U.S. adults interviewed from March 9-29, who attend a church, synagogue or mosque at least monthly. In line with the religious composition of the country, the vast majority of these respondents indicate they are Christian, allowing for a comparison of Catholics’ and Protestants’ answers.

Sermons and Music Matter More to Protestants Than Catholics

While the rank order of priorities is similar between members of the two Christian branches, Protestants (including those who identify as simply “Christian”) attach much more importance than Catholics to the content of sermons, as well as to the quality of music.

Catholics and Protestants attach nearly the same levels of importance to the more social or pragmatic aspects of church, including access to youth programs, community outreach opportunities and social activities. However, Protestants are not significantly more likely than Catholics to care about the style of their religious leaders, saying the presence of dynamic leaders who are interesting or inspiring is a major factor.

Reasons Protestants vs. Catholics Attend Church
% Major factor
Protestant/Other Christian Catholic
% %
Sermons that teach about scripture 83 62
Sermons that help connect religion to own life 80 67
Spiritual programs for children/teens 68 63
Community outreach and volunteer opportunities 61 56
Dynamic religious leaders 53 47
Social activities 49 48
Choir or other spiritual music 44 29
Based on those who attend church monthly or more often
GALLUP, MARCH 9-29, 2017

Overall, Catholics rate none of the factors as more important reasons for attending than do Protestants, suggesting that the latter group — with dozens of denominations and branches of Protestantism to choose from — may be more attuned to specific dynamics of what they prefer in their church experience than Catholics.

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Why Some Choose to Not Attend Church

The poll also asked the 35% of Americans who are lapsed worshippers — those who attended a church, synagogue or mosque at least monthly growing up but who seldom or never attend today — to rate the importance of nine different factors explaining their absence.

There is no overarching reason why former churchgoers no longer attend. Preferring to worship on one’s own tops the list at 44%, and just over a third say not liking organized religion is a major factor. These suggest not an antipathy to religion per se so much as a dislike of the group format.

More mid-level explanations — those mentioned as major reasons by 16% to 22% — include not finding the right church or other place of worship, not having enough time, not being sure which religion is right for them and not liking being asked for money when they attend.

The least-mentioned important factors include being prevented from going due to poor health and not feeling welcome when they attend.

Based on adults who attended church, synagogue or mosque growing up, but now seldom or never attend
Please say whether each of the following is a major reason, a minor reason or not a reason why you [seldom / never] attend church or a place of worship.
Major factor Minor factor Not a factor No opinion
% % % %
You prefer to worship on your own 44 21 34 *
You don’t like organized religion 36 25 37 1
You aren’t very religious 33 32 33 2
You haven’t found a church or other place of worship that you like 22 24 53 1
You don’t have the time 19 28 52 1
You aren’t sure what religion is right for you 17 23 59 1
You don’t like being asked for money when you attend 16 29 55 *
Poor health or other problems prevent you from going 10 19 71 *
You don’t feel welcome when you do attend 9 25 65 1
GALLUP, MARCH 9-29, 2017

Bottom Line

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Belonging to a church, synagogue or mosque provides people with important social benefits that Gallup research shows improve personal well-being. While social benefits are clearly important to majorities of those who worship regularly, what most motivates them to attend is learning more about the tenets of their faith, as well as connecting that faith to their lives. Protestants, who have more control over their church leadership and flexibility in where they worship, place even greater emphasis on the quality of sermons than do Catholics, although both groups rate sermons highly.

Fulfilling these expectations could be critical in order for religious organizations to survive. But to expand their ranks, reigniting the interest of lapsed members should be a priority. Converting those who say they aren’t very religious or who don’t like organized religion may be futile. But churches and others may find some success with the message that worshipping in communion with others has benefits that can’t be achieved worshipping alone — addressing the No. 1 reason non-attendees give for not attending.


About Fr. John A. Peck

Director of the Preachers Institute, priest in the Orthodox Church in America, award-winning graphic designer and media consultant, and non-profit administrator.
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