People who say they go to church are probably lying

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“People who say they go to religious services weekly are probably lying”

Cultural Christianity and the power to change culture

April 22, 2024 -

Priest in an empty church. By GodongPhoto/

Priest in an empty church. By GodongPhoto/

Priest in an empty church. By GodongPhoto/

How many Americans say they attend religious services each week?

How many actually do?

According to Gallup polling, 21 percent of us say we attend religious services every week; 41 percent say they attend at least monthly.

However, the data says otherwise.

Devin Pope, a business school professor at the University of Chicago, studied cell phone geodata from over two million Americans to examine their behavior with respect to religion. He found that only 5 percent attended services weekly, and only 21 percent attended monthly. As an article reporting Pope’s study headlined, “People who say they go to religious services weekly are probably lying.”

The story raises a cultural question: Why would so many people claim to attend religious services so much more often than they actually do?

Religion is twice as popular as sports

According to Gallup, about three in four Americans identify with a specific religious faith. Religious commitment therefore outranks a number of other significant identifiers in our culture:

  • 28 percent of Americans identify as Democrats, 28 percent as Republicans, and 41 percent as independents.
  • 60 percent of us are employed.
  • 66 percent of us own a home.
  • 37 percent of us say we follow sports extremely or somewhat closely.

In an ever more secularized society, why is it still appealing for so many Americans to claim a religious identity and even to say that they often attend religious services?

British atheist Richard Dawkins made headlines recently by claiming to be a “cultural Christian.” He meant that he appreciates the contribution of Christianity to his country’s history and cultural heritage and prefers the Christian tradition to Islam or other options.

I think Dawkins speaks for many. Religiosity still equates to cultural, moral, and traditional values in our society.

But religiosity is not enough to meet the challenges we face today.

“A hedge against bad things”

In his brilliant exposition, Why Politics Fails, Oxford professor Ben Ansell identifies one of the greatest values of democratic governance: “There’s nothing . . . that guarantees democracies get good politicians. But at least ‘the people’ will be able to throw them out if they’re terrible.”

Cultural commentator Jonah Goldberg agrees:

Democracy’s greatness lies in the fact it is a hedge against bad things. (Its record in assuring good things is decidedly more mixed and contestable.) The ability to fire people is essential to political competition. If a politician or a party screws up or starts looking out for its own interests more than the interests of the voters, the ability to kick them out is essential. This was among the greatest innovations in human history. Monarchs and aristocracies can get selfish and self-absorbed. Indeed, they always do eventually. Politicians are prone to the same tendencies. But in a democracy, you can get rid of them without swords or guns.

While we can be grateful for democracy’s ability to remove bad leaders, Ansell is right: democracy cannot guarantee good leaders. The people we vote into office next will be just as fallen and flawed as the ones they replace.

And religiosity cannot make up the difference.

Only one of the 469 members of the current US Congress admits to being religiously “unaffiliated,” while 87 percent claim to be Christian and another 6 percent say they are Jewish. America has never elected an avowed atheist as president.

How is the religiosity of our leaders working out for us?

Cultural Christianity is a contradiction in terms

We experience the transforming power of Christianity not by identifying with it as a religion but by experiencing the living Christ personally. Saul of Tarsus was changed not by changing his religious identity from Jewish to Christian but by meeting the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. He would later explain this reality to the rest of us: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

This is how all relationships work. Marriage changes your life not because you are “married” but because you commit your life to your spouse and they to you. The same is true with parenthood, education, or employment—it is not identifying with the institution but experiencing the relationship it offers that matters.

However, this is especially true with Christianity. Unlike your spouse or parents, your Lord lives in you by his Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:16). Unlike your employer or professor, Jesus has the divine power to forgive your every sin (1 John 1:9) and to transform your character into his (Romans 8:29).

Here’s the bottom line:

Cultural Christianity is a contradiction in terms, but biblical Christianity transforms culture.

When last did the living Lord Jesus change your life?

NOTE: Did you know that Denison Forum is a nonprofit ministry fully supported by readers like you? So, when you request one of our books—like our just-released and updated edition of Between Compromise and Courage—you’re supporting our calling “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph 4:12). Get your copy of our new book today; impact believers across the world tomorrow.

Monday news to know:

Quote for the day:

“Christians are supposed not merely to endure change, nor even to profit by it, but to cause it.” —Harry Emerson Fosdick

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