Church attendance has stagnated or decreased in recent years, causing major problems for religious institutions, even in the Bible Belt.
Pastors, priests, rabbis and imams may be left to wonder: Are Americans losing their religion?
Not necessarily, according to a new report from the Pew Research Center, titled, "Why Americans Go (And Don't Go) To Religious Services."
In a survey of thousands of Americans who attend and do not attend religious services, researchers found that most non-attenders are believers. And the top reason why attenders go to religious services was not rooted in tradition or a sense of obligation.
Across all religious groups, about 81 percent of Americans who said they regularly attend services cited their desire to grow closer to God as the key reason. (These people attend at least once or twice per month). The second-highest reason cited, at 69 percent, was for children to have a moral foundation. About 66 percent said they seek services during times of sorrow.
And it seems to work. About eight in 10 Christians surveyed said they regularly feel a sense of God’s presence during services.
While a few churches have faced closure in the Holy City in recent years due to diminishing membership, some of Charleston's faith leaders were encouraged by the Pew findings related to why Americans do continue to seek religious experiences.
The top two reasons — to feel closer to God and to give their children a moral foundation — in particular encouraged Rabbi Yossi Refson, who leads the Mount Pleasant-based Center for Jewish Life (also known as the Chabad of Charleston and the Low Country).
"I think we underestimate the interest in religion," he said. "Or we overestimate the lack of interest."
The Rev. Nancy Pellegrini is an assistant minister at the Unitarian Church in Charleston. Unlike traditional Christian churches, the Unitarian faith is bound by relationships and covenants, not by creeds.
"Instead of common theology, we have a set of common values," Pellegrini said.
While other churches have suffered losses in recent years, the Unitarian Church has more or less sustained its membership, she said. The Charleston chapter has about 400 members, and about 75 percent attend Sunday service regularly, she added.
Pelligrini agreed with Refson's assertion that people tend to underestimate the number of religious Americans.
"I think people are often yearning for spirituality and another dimension of their lives, rather than just the routine day to day, going to work," she said.
Of those surveyed who said they do not regularly attend services, only 28 percent chalked their decision up to nonbelief. In fact, a much larger share said they stay away for other reasons. About 37 percent said they practice their religion in other ways. (That number rose among Christians; more than four in 10 practice religion outside of church.)
Some said they haven't found a church or service they like. Others cited logistical reasons, including poor health and lack of time.
Whatever the reason, the effects have certainly been felt in the Holy City. Despite the tri-county region's steady influx of new residents, many historic churches have been on thin ice because of diminishing membership. In 2017, Shiloh AME Church and the Plymouth Congregational Church left the peninsula while several other churches had land for sale.
Convincing the spiritual masses to move from believer to regular attender of services is easier said than done.
Refson estimated that about 150 of the Charleston region's roughly 7,500 Jews regularly attend services. However, he said the Center attracts families through its free programs and activities. Still, he said attendance can be difficult when there are so many other outlets competing for parents' time.
For example, filling after-school Hebrew classes, a traditional staple of Jewish childhood, has become more of a struggle as children's extracurricular opportunities multiply. Parents now choose between Hebrew school and ballet classes, sports or music lessons.
"Sometimes religious opportunities get lost in the shuffle," Refson said. "People are being generous with their time. It’s not out of a sense of obligation that they have to do something."
That's true among most religious Americans, the Pew researchers found. Only 16 percent of those who regularly attend services said they do so to please their family, spouse or partner. And 31 percent said they do so out of obligation to continue tradition.
This information puts the onus on religious leaders to increase attendance by creating a meaningful experience of high quality, Refson said.
"This study speaks to our mission," he said. "Times have changed. We need to be proactive to make sure people know that they're welcome and do everything possible to create religious experiences for people, not just to fill the seats."