Issues, Religion

Gallup asked Americans why they go to church. It’s not for the music.


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On Good Friday, Gallup published results of a survey that asked respondents why they go to church (or some other place of worship).

Some fifteen hundred adults across the nation were asked to which degree these seven things were important to them:

1. Sermons or talks that teach you more about scripture;

2. Sermons or lectures that help you connect religion to your own life;

3. Spiritual programs geared toward children and teens;

4. Community outreach and volunteer opportunities;

5. Religious leaders who are interesting and inspiring;

6. Social activities that allow you to get to know people;

7.  A good choir, praise band, cantors or other spiritual music.

As one can see from the results below, respondents identified sermons as the primary factor they go to church.

In fact, more than nine out of ten respondents said the sermon—both to learn about scripture and to help connect religion to one’s own life—was a factor in their decision to attend religious service; three in four respondents said it was a “major factor” they attend.

What ranked last? Music. Just 38 percent said it was a major factor for them.

I found this last item amusing, surprising, and telling. A lifelong Protestant, I grew up in a small-town Pentecostal church. Since that time, I’ve mostly been a free agent, playing the field for numerous other evangelical teams—Baptist, Lutheran, non-denominational, and probably other denominations I can’t remember. (My excuse for this lack of religious fidelity: I moved a lot.)

Each church, to one degree or another, had different theologies, religious dogmas, and social protocols. But the one thing they had in common: lots of music. I mean lots of it.

Some of the music was good; much of it, in my opinion, was less than good. Regardless of the quality of the music or the talent of the performers, attendees were of course expected to worship God to the music and be deeply moved.

Between me, you, and the internet—I never liked this part of church very much. This is not the fault of the performers. I’m simply not a hip-swaying, hand-waving guy. I saw Florence and the Machine live last year; I was the one guy in the Xcel Energy Center who never budged.

I bring all this up because I’ve always assumed evangelical churches feature music heavily because that’s what people want and demand. But this Gallup poll suggests that might not be the case.

The poll made me wonder: When and why did music became such a prominent part of evangelical services? And are these churches missing out by focusing on music at the expense of other aspects of church life?

I suspect the former question might be linked to the increasing need for people in our culture to be entertained.

“Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other,” Neil Postman famously wrote in his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death. “They do not exchange ideas, they exchange images.”

I’m not suggesting churches need to stop playing music. I’m merely wondering if dedicating nearly half of a church service to musical performances is the most efficient use of time.

One wonders if people in pews would not receive more spiritual nourishment from other church-led activities: An extended reading of scripture? Silent prayer? A longer sermon?

I’m curious what readers think.

This post Gallup asked Americans why they go to church. It’s not for the music. was originally published on Intellectual Takeout by Jon Miltimore.

  • shoemama

    For me music is a VERY important part of the service. I was a part of the choir for many years. Both the words and the music itself are inspiring. The congregation joins us for hymns where the music isn’t quite as challenging, but the words to each song fit with the day’s message. Our Organ fills the sanctuary with majestic sounds. (We don’t do repetitious phrases and sway or swing our arms around.) We let each piece speak for itself. Our services would feel very empty without the praise of our music.

  • joleenworden

    For the first 21 years of my life I attended services regularly in the United Lutheran Church of America. We followed a relatively strict calendar of organized services, so music, most of it Hymns led by a Choir but sung by the Congregation, was a very important part of it. I also taught Sunday school and at an earlier age played piano for hymns we taught the children. I agree that an excellent Minister who chooses good relevant Sermon topics and delivers them well is important. However I did find the music of my Church to be emotionally inspiring. I was confirmed in that Church and also attended youth group meetings once a week. I no longer attend Church but I have never lost my beliefs or the love of the Church’s music.

  • Marty Donley

    When I attended church regularly, I enjoyed the music immensely even if it was bad. In fact, I didn’t care if it was bad. The music was a good breakup of the overall service. Over the years, I’ve listened to several ministers and believe me, whether the sermon is a good one or not, an hour and a half listening to a sermon will put you to sleep even when you don’t want it to. Most of the services I attended were between two to two and a half hours long with most of that spent on the sermon. Music was an important break to keep you awake sometimes!

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