Sometimes the number is 38 percent and sometimes it's something like 41.
For decades, Gallup Poll researchers have asked people if they attended worship services in the previous week. On rare occasions the percentage may soar to 48. It has been known to dip to 35. But that's about it. There are seasonal ripples in the pews, but few big waves.
Then came the events of Sept. 11.
"Everybody started hearing all kinds of things from people all over the country," said Mike Vlach of Church Initiative, based in Wake Forest, N.C. This evangelical support network (www.churchinitiative.org) has about 5,000 churches on its mailing list.
"It seemed like we were talking about sizable changes in the spiritual landscape of the country. ... We immediately started calling churches and asking, 'What are you seeing out there? What are people asking? What are you doing in response?' "
Media reports joined the chorus, citing this return to faith as a ray of light in the darkness. Then the late September Gallup Poll (www.gallup.com) came out and the number was 47 percent, up from 41 in May. That was a rise, but not shockingly higher than the normal post-summer lift.
Vlach kept placing his calls and the news was good. Pastors said they were seeing larger crowds, including many inquisitive visitors. The atmosphere of uncertainty was lingering. "People have a heightened sense of alertness," said a pastor in Indianapolis. A Chicago-area contact reported: "We have noticed a heightened desire in people to put their spiritual lives in order."
The anecdotes were wonderful, but Vlach said he could not find strong evidence of lasting impact. Most church leaders were comforting their anxious flocks and welcoming any visitors who happened to walk in on their own. But few churches had tried to reach out to the un-churched.
Pastors preached one or two sermons linked to Sept. 11 and, perhaps, organized a memorial service. But that was about it, said Vlach. Few churches made sustained attempts to talk about life and death, heaven and hell, sin and repentance.
"I'm not sure that many churches even saw this as an opportunity to deal with these kinds of issues," he said. "I'm not sure many church leaders are trained to think like that."
By mid-November, the Gallup number was back to 42 percent.
Yes, 74 percent of Americans said they were praying more than usual, 70 percent said they had wept and 77 percent said they were being affectionate with loved ones. As the Gallup team said, Americans were seeking "spiritual solace." But the data suggested that they were flying solo.
The evangelical market analysts at the Barna Research Group (www.barna.org) did a wave of national polling starting in late October, looking for statistical signs of revival. They found that worship statistics were following familiar patterns. Participation in prayer circles and Bible study groups "remained static." Even among born-again Christians, they found a slight decrease in the number of believers who were sharing their faith with non-believers.
"After the attack," said George Barna, "millions of nominally churched or generally irreligious Americans were desperately seeking something that would restore stability and a sense of meaning to life. Fortunately, many of them turned to the church. Unfortunately, few of them experienced anything that was sufficiently life-changing to capture their attention."
These seekers found comfort, but were not motivated to change their beliefs and lifestyles. The most stunning statistic was that the percentage of Americans saying they believe in "moral truths or principles that are absolute," meaning truths that don't change with the circumstances, actually declined -- from 38 to 22 percent. In fact, only 32 percent of born-again Christians said they still believe in the existence of absolute moral truth.
"Our assessment," said Barna, "is that churches succeeded at putting on a friendly face but failed at motivating the vast majority of spiritual explorers to connect with Christ in a more intimate or intense manner." The Sept. 11th tragedy offered congregations a unique chance to "be the healing and transforming presence of God in people's lives, but that ... has now come and gone, with little to show for it."