Jul 9, 2001

From the Archives

Protestants, Catholics and Mormons Reflect Diverse Levels of Religious Activity

The religious activity of adults varies widely according to their denominational affiliation, according to a new study released by the Barna Research Group of Ventura, California. The study found that people associated with Pentecostal, Assembly of God and Mormon churches are the most active in a variety of religious endeavors, while individuals who attend Catholic and Episcopal churches are generally the least involved in the eight religious activities evaluated in the national research study.

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The survey showed that Protestants remain the largest religious segment of America, claiming 56% of the adult population. Catholics represent about 22%, atheists and agnostics are about 7%, and Mormons are just under 2%.

Frequent Practices

By far the most common religious practice among adults is praying. Overall, 82% of all Americans – including 90% of all Protestants and 88% of Catholics – prayed to God within the past seven days. The figure was highest among those who attend a Pentecostal church (97% of whom said they had prayed in the past week), and lowest among those who attended an Adventist church (79%).

Similar proportions of adults attended a church service in the past week (43%) and read the Bible other than when they were at a church (38%). Adults who attend a Mormon church were the most likely to have attended during the past week (71%). Among people aligned with a Protestant church, those associated with Assembly of God churches (69%), Pentecostal churches (66%) and non-denominational Protestant churches (61%) were the most likely to have attended in the past week. The people who were least likely to attend a church service in the past week were those going to an Episcopal church (30% of whom had attended).

Bible reading was most likely among those who attend a Pentecostal church (75%) and least likely among those who frequent the Catholic (23%), Episcopal (30%) and Lutheran (32%) churches.

The other five activities evaluated were each undertaken by less than one-quarter of the adult population. In a typical week, just 15% of adults engage in a small group (other than a Sunday school or 12-step group) that meets for Bible study, prayer or fellowship; 16% attend a Sunday school class; and 16% volunteer their time to a church. Eighteen percent donate some money to a church during a typical month, and just 24% shared their faith in Christ with a non-Christian during the prior year.

Big Range of Activity

The differences in levels of activity between the churches that have the greatest levels of participation and those with the lowest levels ranged from just 11 percentage points in relation to volunteering at church to a whopping 47-percentage-point difference in regard to sharing one’s faith with non-Christians. The study shows that there were three religious activities for which the range of difference was more than 40 points: attending church (41-point range), reading the Bible (45-point range) and verbally sharing one’s faith (47 points). The two religious activities that reflected the most limited differences were volunteering at their church (11-point range) and donating money to their church during a typical month (13 points).

George Barna, whose company conducted the research, noted that the range of differences regarding religious activity was not nearly as prolific as was the range related to people’s core religious beliefs, as described in a study released two weeks ago. “When we examined seven core beliefs, among those who attend churches associated with the ten largest denominational groupings the average range was 47 percentage points. Compared to the average difference related to religious activities among people attending those churches, the implication is that there is much greater similarity in the nature of people’s religious activity than in the substance of their beliefs.”

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Some Surprises

Among the outcomes that surprised the researchers were the depressed percentages of people associated with most Protestant churches who shared their faith in Christ with a non-Christian during the previous twelve months. There were only three of the ten Protestant groups examined for which at least half of their adherents had shared the faith: Pentecostal churches (61%), Assembly of God churches (61%), and non-denominational Protestant congregations (57%). The Protestant group least likely to engage in evangelism was Episcopalians, among whom just one out of every seven had verbally shared their faith in Christ in the past year.

Another surprise was the fact that most Baptists had not shared their faith in Christ with a non-believer in the past year. Baptist churches are often known for their evangelistic focus, yet only four out of every ten adults who attend a Baptist church had verbalized their faith in Christ to a non-Christian in the past twelve months. Even so, that proportion of evangelizers is higher than is found in most denominations.

The study also revealed that barely half of all Protestant adults (54%) read the Bible during a typical week. Barna pointed out that Mormons are more likely to read the Bible during a week than are Protestants – even though most Mormons do not believe that the Bible is the authoritative Word of God.

The study also showed the downward trend in Sunday school participation. Barna indicated that many churches are attempting to shift adults into small groups that meet during the week, but the proportion of Protestant adherents who are involved in small groups – 21% – has remained unchanged in the past several years, while adult Sunday school attendance has slowly deteriorated.

The research suggests that large numbers of people who have no type of personal relationship with Jesus Christ or who possess an unorthodox view of God nevertheless pray to God on a regular basis. “The emphasis upon prayer during the past five years has influenced many people,” commented Barna. “However, many people pray without any sense of assurance that there is a living and powerful God who hears their prayers, or that they are praying to a God who has offered forgiveness for their sins. For many Americans, prayer is like snacking – we don’t really think about it, but we do it out of habit and without much passion.”

The study also showed the continuing decline in church attendance among Roman Catholics. While large majorities of Catholics attended weekly in past decades, a majority is absent on a typical weekend these days. The Protestant average – 52% – is now slightly higher than that among Catholics, a complete reversal of the historical trend.

The Big Picture

Barna pointed out that there is a moderately strong correlation between the data on people’s beliefs and the statistics regarding their religious activity. “If you compare the ranking of the 12 religious groups in the study in terms of the orthodoxy of their beliefs, as described in our prior report, and the levels of their religious activity, you find considerable consistency. The groups whose adherents are most likely to possess biblical perspectives are also those whose adherents are most actively pursuing spiritual experiences. The churches where people’s beliefs have strayed farthest from the Bible tend to be those in which the people are least involved in religious and spiritual pursuits.”

Overall, Barna contends that the data portray a nation that is comfortable with religion but not particularly committed to spiritual growth. “Most people who are aligned with a Christian church really make a rather minimal investment in religious activity. There are those who are completely committed to spiritual growth and invest themselves quite heavily in such development, but they constitute less than one out of every five adults in America. Similarly, relatively few adults have completely negated the role of faith in their lives – again, perhaps one out of five. Most people describe themselves as religious, describe their faith as being very important in their daily life, but make only a half-hearted effort to truly master the foundations of their chosen faith and live a life that is determined by that faith.”

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Survey Methodology

The data described above are from telephone interviews with a nationwide random sample of 6038 adults conducted from January 2000 through June 2001. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. All of the interviews were conducted from the Barna Research Group telephone interviewing facility in Ventura, CA. Adults in the 48 continental states were eligible to be interviewed and the distribution of respondents coincided with the geographic dispersion of the U.S. adult population. Multiple callbacks were used to increase the probability of including a reliable distribution of adults.

The twelve denominational groupings described in the research are based upon people’s self-report of the type of church they most often attend. Several of the groupings, such as Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, and Church of God, encompass more than one denomination associated with that label. (For instance, there are more than two dozen Baptist denominations in the U.S.) Other groups, such as Orthodox and Nazarene churches, were excluded from specific analysis because the sample size of adherents was too small to permit reliable analysis.

This report is related to a report released two weeks prior that focused on the religious beliefs of people associated with these church groups. The results of that study, released June 25 under the title “Religious Beliefs Vary Widely by Denomination,” can be accessed through the link at the top of this page.

The Barna Research Group, Ltd. is an independent marketing research company located in southern California. Since 1984, it has been studying cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. This research was funded solely by Barna Research as part of its regular tracking of attitudes, values and behavior.

If you would like to receive a bi-weekly update on the latest research findings from the Barna Research Group, you may subscribe to this free service by typing your e-mail address in the field above located at the top of this page on the left-hand side.

Religious Practices, by Denomination
A. attend churchB. read Bible C. pray to GodD. attend Sun schE. small groupF. church volunteerG. donate moneyH. share faithH. Sample size
all adults43%38%82%16%15%16%18%24%6038
Assembly of God696693352930226194
Baptist (any type)50559230221920431035
Church of Christ5853923728222935118
Lutheran (any type)4332841313192121287
Methodist (any)4943901815192320392
Mormon/Latter Day Saints716795622740242686
Christian non-denominational6166942132222657321
Pentecostal/Foursquare 6675973637252761124
Presbyterian (any)4948891718261723192
Religious Practices, by Groups
A. attend churchB. read Bible C. pray to GodD. attend Sun schE. small groupF. church volunteerG. donate moneyH. share faithH. Sample size
all adults43%38%82%16%15%16%18%24%6038
all Protestants50549023212021363402
Baptist (any type) 50559230221920431035
Catholics 482388681213101358
AG/Pentecostal 6771953533272561218
Christian non-denominational6166942132222657321
  • A=attended a church service, other than a special event such as a wedding or funeral, in past 7 days
  • B= read from the Bible, other than while at church, in past 7 days
  • C= prayed to God, in past 7 days
  • D= attended a Sunday school class at a church, in past 7 days
  • E= participate in a small group that meets regularly for Bible study, prayer or Christian fellowship, not including a Sunday school or 12-step group, in past 7 days
  • F= volunteer at your church, in past 7 days
  • G= donated money to your church, in past 30 days
  • H= explained your religious beliefs to someone who had different beliefs, in hope that they might accept Jesus Christ as their Savior, in past year


Ranking of People’s Religious Activity Levels,
by Denomination
(average percentage of denominational adherents who participated in the eight religious activities measured
2Mormon/Latter Day Saints52
3Assembly of God 51
4Christian non-denominational 47
5Church of Christ44
All Protestant Churches41
Mainline Churches*34

*includes Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist and Presbyterian churches



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Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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