The new Pew Research Center survey, “Why Americans Go (and Don’t Go) to Religious Services,” examines the reality of increasingly empty houses of worship. “In recent years, the percentage of U.S. adults who say they regularly attend religious services has been declining,” the Aug. 1 study begins, “while the share of Americans who attend only a few times a year, seldom or never has been growing.”
Although that’s nothing new, the survey’s focus on the “why” is instructive. And while the percentage of Jewish respondents was too small to register in the findings, there are still some lessons to learn.
The Jewish community has recognized for some time that one’s religious identity has to encompass more than just attending services. And what we have learned in the process of reaching that conclusion may be helpful to other communities as they respond to empty pews.
By far, most respondents who say they attend services once or twice a month (61 percent) say the most important reason they go is to be closer to God. Much smaller percentages attend “to be a better person” (8 percent), “to be part of a community of faith” (6 percent), for “comfort in tough times” (5 percent) or “to raise my children morally” (4 percent).
And why don’t people go? Some (28 percent) just aren’t religious. But a larger number (37 percent) say they worship in other ways. Almost a quarter (23 percent) say they haven’t found a house of worship that they like, and then there are the familiar responses about houses of worship generally, such as “I don’t like the sermons” (18 percent) and “I don’t feel welcome” (14 percent).
If congregations are asking, “What can we do to get people back into the pews?” they are asking the wrong question. Rather, they should ask, “What can we do to get people to express their religious identities more?” and “How do we do that in the context of a community?”
The current mantra, “meet people where they are,” suggests where to start looking for those who worship in other ways or haven’t found a house of worship they like. To that end, some rabbis have gone so far as to set up shop in bars and coffee shops. Others have started serving better coffee in the synagogue. For two generations, independent chavurot have been established by like-minded people who wanted to do Jewish their own way. Moishe Houses and the Conservative movement’s “non-Chabad Chabad” initiative — and even Chabad itself — are all ways to reach people outside the traditional model.
Our community’s effort to build Jewish life outside the four walls of established synagogues has seen some success. Perhaps other faith communities can benefit from that experience. Because while Americans have long been known as a religious people, if identity is defined by once-weekly in-house religious ritual, America will continue to experience an identity crisis.