Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Economist Magazine on Church Attendance During the Recession

The Economist's magazine is reporting on how the recession is affecting church attendance and more-or-less concludes there is no evidence of a link. The article, however, has a number of problems. Let me begin with this paragraph:
Last year David Beckworth, an assistant professor of Economics at Texas State University, examined historic patterns in the size of evangelical congregations and found that, during each recession cycle between 1968 and 2004, membership of evangelical churches jumped by 50%. This report filled the newspapers and TV news-shows at the height of the depression panic just before Christmas; but the report’s findings focused on evangelicals, and do not apply to Americans at large.
I did not find membership jumps by 50% during recessions, rather the membership growth rate jumps by that amount. Moreover, while that 50% bump in the growth rate applies only to evangelicals this finding was only part of my study. In fact, the first part of my paper uses a national Pew Survey taken in November 2001 to see if after controlling for evangelicals, 911, and a host of other confounding factors whether one's employment status affects the likelihood of weekly attendance. I found that being unemployed did increase weekly religious attendance in a statistically significant manner.

What my findings show is that one cannot look at the national average and determine if the recession is affecting religious attendance; one has to look at those folks who have been adversely affected the recession to make that call. Frank Newport and the folks at Gallup seem to miss this point. They only look at the headline number and never dig deeper. Gallup simply is not looking at the right data to answer this question. I have not seen John Green's work from Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, but I suspect he too is looking at the headline weekly attendance number only. I would encourage Frank Newport, John Green, and other interested observers to take a look at my entire paper here.

What makes this frustrating is that I made this point to the Economist's correspondent who contacted me about this story. I have also contacted the folks at Gallup on this same issue back when this issue came up late last year.


  1. Nonetheless, you should be glad of the coverage. The Economist led me to your post, and then on to your paper. I wouldn't have known of it without the (erroneous) story.

  2. Andrew:

    This is true...especially for a tenure track assistant professor like me! Thanks for the note.