O come to church all ye faithful, sort of faithful and atheists, too

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"Among Americans who attend church, what is the primary reason you attend?" Graphic courtesy of LifeWay Research

"Among Americans who attend church, what is the primary reason you attend?" Graphic courtesy of LifeWay Research

(RNS) December means curtains up for church Christmas pageants, hand-bell concerts, caroling kiddie choirs and Nativity displays on the front lawns.

But the No. 1 reason most U.S. adults — Christians and many unbelievers, too — give for going to church at Christmastime is to “honor Jesus,” according to a new survey from the evangelical research agency LifeWay Research.

More than three in four of churchgoers (77 percent), Protestants and Catholics alike, said they were drawn to attend church to honor the birth of their savior, the fundamental religious experience of Christmas above and beyond all the seasonal fa-la-la-la-la.

Overall, six in 10 (61 percent) of the 1,000 U.S. adults surveyed, said they typically go to church during the festive weeks of December. And most of those with no such plans said they’d go — if someone invited them.

READ: ‘Christmas is all about Jesus’ signs pushed by pastors

"If someone invited you, how likely would you be to attend church at Christmastime?" Graphic courtesy of LifeWay Research

“If someone invited you, how likely would you be to attend church at Christmastime?” Graphic courtesy of LifeWay Research

Even among the “nones” (people with no religious identity) nearly three in 10 (29 percent) had plans to go to church. Many of those churchgoing nones, an umbrella term for atheists and for people who say they believe “nothing in particular” — also named Jesus as their primary reason for attending in the holiday season (47 percent).

“This is the first time we have asked these questions and we were surprised,” said LifeWay Research director Scott McConnell.

“People are so focused today on experiences. And with all the traditional events and family-friendly experiences being offered at churches to put you in the mood for Christmas, we thought those would be the big draw.

“But it’s not the experiences they are eating up,” he said. “They are there to honor Jesus.”

The other choices, such as observing tradition, being with family and friends, or getting in the Christmas spirit, each scored less than 10 percent in the overall survey. It was conducted September 14-28 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.6 percentage points.

However, family and friends do make a difference in Christmastime church attendance. The survey found that among those with no plan to attend a church (38 percent) at Christmastime, the majority (57 percent) say they likely might go if personally invited.

They would go to be with people they care about, “even if it weren’t something they would typically choose,” said McConnell.

For churchgoing nones, while nearly half cited Jesus as a reason to attend, 27 percent said they go to be with family and friends, 20 percent go to “observe tradition” and 6 percent want to “get in the Christmas spirit.”

READ: On Dec. 25, Atheists celebrate a different birthday

"Americans who typically attend church at Christmastime." Graphic courtesy of LifeWay Research

“Americans who typically attend church at Christmastime.” Graphic courtesy of LifeWay Research

There’s a sense of connection to Christmas that still resonates for many nones, even if they don’t put a denominational brand label on themselves. A 2012 study by Pew Research, “’Nones’ on the Rise,” found 60 percent of people who say they believe “nothing in particular” also said they believe in God.

Still, devotion to the divine gets diluted if you think of Christmastime as a season, the way the question was presented in the LifeWay survey, rather than specifying church attendance on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.

Marking Christ in Christmas throughout the holiday season drew only about a third of people’s attention (37 percent) in a 2010 LifeWay survey. Family and friends came first.

“Sure, people will say Jesus is the reason for the season, but Thor is the reason the fifth day of the week is named Thursday. That doesn’t mean I celebrate Thor,” LifeWay Research president Ed Stetzer told USA Today at the time. “The fact is, people don’t open the Gospel and read why Jesus came.”

(Cathy Lynn Grossman is a senior national correspondent for RNS)

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  • Ian Cooper

    It’s about time we accepted the truth, grew up and gave up these harmful myths. There is more evidence for Santa Claus than there is for God.

  • Mark Moore

    Christians don’t seem to realize that their churches have atheists sprinkled all through them. The guy that thinks god is a good idea but not really real – that is an atheist by definition. The guy that doesn’t believe but thinks it is good for the children. The guy or girl that goes because the spouse is. The guy that says god is a metaphor. And then there are all the deists. They aren’t Christian either.

    There is a ton of them and the churches better hope they don’t leave.

  • Thecla

    There’s a sense of connection to Christmas that still resonates for many nones, even if they don’t put a denominational brand label on themselves.

    This strongly suggests that churches need to ‘revision’ themselves—to stop representing themselves as ‘communities’ and starting recognizing their role as public facilities, like libraries, parks, theaters, shopping malls, etc. Churches are not going to survive if they continue to represent themselves as, primarily gathered assemblies of people who are committed—either to denominations or to local congregations.

    And it doesn’t matter in the least if God is as mythical as Santa Claus or not. People enjoy Santa and the elves at this time of year, and they enjoy church. All this, mythical or not, is part of the good stuff of life, and if it dies, we’ll have just one less source of pleasure.

  • Alan

    Nature is all that exists and all that occurs naturally. It creates and recreates itself at every moment, in every detail. The Earth is part of nature, as is every form of life.

    We know that humans commonly invent fictional stories and characters including gods, and that greedy people use the concept of God to scam others for personal gain. So it follows that God is a fictional character and often a confidence scam.

  • Alan

    Happy Solstice – the original reason for the season.

  • Fran

    There is more proof that God exists (the universe, the earth and everything on it, including man) than that Santa Claus exists. He is only a lie in the name of religion that is taught to children and a man-made tradition just like Christmas.

  • Fran

    Who or what created nature? Is nature responsible enough to make sure we have 4 seasons every year exactly in the same order?

  • Richard Rush

    Yes. Think about Halloween which we all know revolves around myths and fantasies, but people nowadays enjoy it more than ever. The celebrations of Christmas and Easter are becoming increasingly similar.

  • Richard Rush

    Indoctrinating very young children about God is similar to how they are trained to ride a bicycle. Santa Claus is God on training-wheels.

  • samuel johnston

    You still have never read Darwin. At least I have read the Bible. Its version of creation has no witnesses either. All opinions about creation are mere speculation. I am with the ancient Greeks who argued that there was no reason to suppose the the universe had a beginning.

  • John

    Bwahaaaaaaa. Right, we have a present with no beginning. That’s logical and reasonable.

  • samuel johnston

    Hi John,
    Think! Is what is reasonable (logically necessary), therefore a reality to which the entire universe must conform? My old college philisophy professor used to say: “Must – meaning, I don’t know.”
    Put analytically, the human brain requires certain conditions. They may or may not be the requirements of matter. I suggest that you take a look at Quantum Mechanics. Enjoy.

  • John

    Great, so now a detailed knowledge of quantum mechanics is necessary before I can understand logic and reason? Dumb response…try again.

  • Fran


    That’s great that you have read the Bible! I will continue to read it, study and meditate on what it has to say, as well as try to apply in my life the principles and standards set forth there. Doing that just gives me a purpose in life (unlike evolution) and makes my life happier and easier to handle in these critical times.

    The Bible is the only accurate “source” of mankind’s past (and why we grow old and die); our present (and why the entire world has gone crazy); and our future (living forever on a paradise earth, which was God’s purpose for man to begin with).

    I sincerely doubt that Mr. Darwin has written anything that covers all of these aspects of man or that would give any hope to man for the future, as God has so lovingly done for his earthly family.

  • Alan

    Nature has always existed in some form. It adapts and creates itself. With current technology we can see worlds being created far away the same way Earth was created out of stellar material. We can also see collisions of stellar materials.

    Under present conditions we experience yearly seasons (less pronounced at the equator) but their are no guarantees that conditions will last forever, and we know that conditions have changed on Earth in the past and can expect changes in the future. I don’t find pleasure in bursting your fantasy bubble but we need to face facts rather than bury our heads in the sands of ignorance.

  • Alan

    Nature is proof that nature exists, not that nature requires a human-like persona to design and engineer all of nature. The idea that God is a perfect human-like family member who creates everything is no more than human self aggrandizement.

  • Larry

    “Is nature responsible enough to make sure we have 4 seasons every year exactly in the same order?”

    You mean that temperate climates of the earth have 4 seasons as opposed to 2 in tropical and desert climates (rainy/dry) or 1 in arctic climates.

    Do you realize a 4th grade science class already discusses the cause of this sort of thing?

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  • Justin Moore

    This is a slightly dishonest presentation of the data. First, keep in mind that not all nones are atheists/agnostics, in fact most of them are not but are just religious people disenchanted with organized religion. Now, if 29% of the “nones” are planning to go to church, and 47% of those think Jesus is the reason for the season, that means that <14% of nones go to church on Xmas for Jesus. That 14% is very unlikely to include any atheists, especially since this is already a much smaller percentage of the "none" group than we would expect to respond this way based on the fact that most of them are actually just Christians who don't like labels or organized religion.

  • It is good that many wish to honor the birth of Jesus. But the sacrifice or atonement of Jesus, which is honored at Easter (Resurrection day), is what we really need to believe, and receive to truly honor Him. It is His death, burial and resurrection that paid for our sins, and open the door for us to have eternal life. We need to recognize that no amount of good works or human effort can save us. If they could then the Son of God would never have suffered so horribly in vain. Indeed, He did not suffer in vain. God has highly exalted Him, and He is seated at the right hand of The Majesty on high. Receive Jesus as Savior and Lord. Turn away from sin and follow Him by His Word and the power of The Holy Spirit. Then you will truly honor the one who is the reason for the season. God Bless

  • Elizabeth

    Could it be that there is no proof for your god? Jesus came for people who want His Father..the God of the universe…you can meet them and find life with peace.

  • Ms. B

    Buddhists would say this is evidence of mind creating all, and your own karma creating your world and experiences.

    What is the purpose of debate? To divide or unite? Choose wisely my friends.