How does church attendance this Christmastime compare with other years?

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Answered by: Lynn, An Expert in the Christianity - General Category

Were people more or less likely to attend religious services as the year 2013 drew to a close?

Well, it depends on where you were.

A few trends are worth noting when it comes to church attendance this past Christmastime.

Perhaps most interestingly, President Obama passed on the standard photo-op of walking into a church this year. He chose instead to golf, to sing carols and open presents with his family, and to thank military personnel for their contributions at the Marine Corps Base in Hawaii. The New York Times' Ashley Parker noted this departure from holiday tradition as "very unusual" and mentioned, for context, Mr. Obama's 18 church attendances in six years of presidential leadership as compared with George W. Bush's 120 in eight.

Yet, says Parker, the president's public decision to celebrate Christmas apart from a church appears "to be in step with a changing America." The recent results of Pew Research's Religion and Public Life Project, for example, report that while 69 percent of adults regularly attended Christmas services as children, only 54 percent were likely to do so this year. To those who still view church attendance as highly important, however, the Obamas' omission was a potently negative symbol. Not surprisingly, the conservative blogosphere painted the president's (in)action as evidence of Marxist and Muslim sympathies and a deliberate signal that he no longer needed Christian votes. On a more temperate level, the New York Times interpreted the Obamas' Christmas choice as "complicated," "private," and "inclusive."

So what did President Obama's avoidance of a Christmas church service in 2013 really mean? "President Obama is a committed Christian," defends Joshua DuBois, who left the White House's Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships earlier in the year. "He has a serious practice of faith even though he doesn't necessarily wear it on his sleeve." The Obamas' pre-recorded Christmas message and comments in Hawaii reflect an acknowledgement of traditional Christmas beliefs, including deep respect for freedoms of speech and worship. Growing numbers of Americans seem to agree with the Obamas that it is OK to untether private spiritual values from public religious affiliations -- even on Christmas.

Canadian sociologist Reginald Bibby views church attendance at Christmastime as a practical, not political issue. Bibby, who has tracked church attendance trends in North America for decades, is dismayed by traditional churches' failure to capitalize on the 60 percent increase in attendance during the holidays. These church officials "almost act like they're annoyed," he says. Some "have the outlook that these are just the seasonal people . . . they don't want to take them seriously."

Despite smaller holiday gains in evangelical churches -- about 15 percent, according to Bibby -- these "stricter" churches seem to welcome any opportunity to attract and retain new spiritual customers. Volunteers postpone their own Christmas plans to pour resources into embellished holiday services, hoping that visitors will return for a full slate of well-advertised activities in the new year. A growing body of economic literature since the 1970s proves that religious institutions behave like any other organization: higher expectations eliminate "free riders" over time, purging the ranks of the non-productive.

This theological dynamic is of increasing interest to religious think tanks; according to the Hartford Institute, the number of the world's churches with over 2,000 regularly attending members has quadrupled during the last 20 years. Statistics for religious adherence are on the rise in some pockets and falling in others, but the overall arc of what Joseph Tamney calls "the resilience of conservative Christianity" continues to stymie those who have predicted its demise for over a century.

While flashy and inspiring holiday pageants are centered -- at least these days -- in evangelical Protestantism, Pope Francis' freshness and popularity have had a positive effect on Catholic church attendance as well. More pilgrims at the Vatican's holiday papal audiences, for example, have translated into enthusiastic souvenir sales "despite Italy's moribund economy," according to the National Catholic Reporter. Church attendance figures in other Western European countries have been in longstanding decline, but odd spikes of interest can be attributed to something as unpredictable as weather, as in the case when England's 2011 Christmas attendance increased 15 percent from a rainy holiday in 2010. Suppressed Christmas traditions in formerly communist countries have made significant comebacks, although not as zealously as predicted during the earlier years of their hard-won religious freedoms.

Precise statistics for Christmas celebrations throughout all corners of the world are hard to come by, but John Allen, in his new book "The Global War on Christians" (2013), takes an inverse look at the church service question. He argues that while Christianity may be vibrant -- say in South Korea, which hosts five of the world's ten largest megachurches -- it is being violently forced underground in places such as Iraq, Egypt, India, Indonesia, North Korea, Rwanda, Nigeria, Sudan, Kenya, and Congo. According to Allen, the fact that many instances of persecution don't exceed 20 fatalities shouldn't prevent their being viewed as "generalized mayhem." He argues that the same groups and denominations are being victimized repeatedly over time and that the world would take more notice if the pattern were anything other than predominantly against Christians.

So to answer the question of how church attendance this Christmastime has altered our perceptions of the world, let's say this: the facts point to a disparity of religious options and safety, but millions recognize the miracle of being able to worship together. And in fact did so. Whether we attended a Christmastime service ourselves or not, let us remember those who may have died for trying.

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