If you’re heading to church this weekend for Easter, you may want to leave early to get a good seat.

Faith leaders expect to see the typical surge in attendance on the holiday this year, even as overall attendance declines.

More than half of Protestant pastors say Easter is their best-attended service of the year, and that figure grows to 90% if you include the pastors who say it’s their second- or third-best attended service, according to Lifeway Research.

Several factors explain high attendance on the holiday, including some that don’t have much to do with faith, said Scott McConnell, Lifeway Research’s executive director.

For example, young people who otherwise might sleep in or go to brunch with friends on Sundays often make an appearance at Easter worship in order to stay in their parents’ good graces ahead of a big holiday meal.

“Food is always a draw,” McConnell said.

But so are more serious considerations, like a desire to celebrate the miracle of Easter alongside other Christians.

“People want to make the effort to be together for the celebration,” McConnell said.

Gallup polling: Latter-day Saints have the highest rate of weekly church attendance

Why do people go to church?

The social aspect of worship services helps motivate many people of faith to go to church not just on Easter but throughout the year, according to a new Public Religion Research Institute survey on American religion.

Among the 45% of U.S. adults who go to church at least a few times per year, nearly 8 in 10 cite “experiencing religion in a community” as a very or somewhat important reason for their attendance, the survey reported.

Other common explanations for church attendance include a desire to feel closer to God (90%) or to instill religious values in young people (79%).

Those answers remain common whether you look just at Democrats or just at Republicans, just at the young or at the old, or just at individual faith groups, according to Public Religion Research Institute.

Similar themes also emerged when Lifeway Research surveyed Christians who have switched churches about why their old church wasn’t a good fit.

Many respondents said that, at the old church, they struggled to connect with others — and with God.

“They wanted a church setting and relationships that were drawing them closer to God,” McConnell said.

Friendships formed at church help young people, in particular, stay engaged, he added.

They’re also what make returning to a church that you’ve moved away from — during an Easter visit to your hometown, perhaps — so fun.

“Jesus taught that you come to follow him individually, but then you continue to follow him with other believers,” McConnell said.

The Very Rev. Martin Diaz, rector of the Cathedral of the Madeleine, reads from the Bible as Utah Catholics mark Palm Sunday at the cathedral in Salt Lake City on Sunday, March 28, 2021. | Annie Barker, Deseret News

Facts about church attendance

Public Religion Research Institute and Lifeway Research aren’t the only organizations that have studied church attendance in recent months.

Gallup also released a report on the topic this week, which, among other things, found that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are more likely than members of other faith groups to attend church regularly.

Here are some other key takeaways from recent research on church attendance:

  • Regular church attendance has become less common in recent years. “On any given weekend, about three in 10 U.S. adults attend religious services, down from 42% two decades ago,” Gallup reported.
  • Public Religion Research Institute found that more than two-thirds of Latter-day Saints (68%) and half of white evangelical Protestants (51%) attend at least one church service each week. Fewer than half of members of other faith groups meet this level of attendance.
  • The share of Catholics who attend church regularly has declined by 12 percentage points since the turn of the 21st century, from 45% to 33%, according to Gallup.
  • Americans who are 65 or older are more likely than younger adults to attend church at least weekly. Thirty-three percent of seniors attend at least weekly, compared to “25% of Americans between 50 and 64, 22% of Americans between 30 and 49, and 18% of young Americans under 30,” Public Religion Research Institute reported.
  • After Easter, Christmas services are the most well-attended church event, according to Lifeway Research’s survey of Protestant pastors. Mother’s Day comes in third.