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Study confirms "back-pew" Catholic stereotype

A new Catholic University of America study of worship habits shows that people who turn up to church up to half an hour early typically sit up front and are fully engaged in the service, while the "stragglers" are more likely to sit in the back and be less engaged.

The finding "lends credence to the perception that back-pew parishioners approach church services as more of a social obligation than a deeper experience of faith," said D. Paul Sullins, an assistant professor of sociology at Catholic University of America in Washington DC, who directed the study.

At the same time, the study disputed the commonly held notion that the majority of churchgoers congregate at the rear of the church. Worshippers created a fairly even distribution pattern front to back, even when the church was far from capacity, the study said.

The survey, conducted by students, involved more than 3400 worshippers in Washington DC congregations selected randomly from phone book lists of Baptist, United Methodist and Episcopal churches. Sullins said he chose these denominations because they generally represent -- respectively -- conservative, moderate and liberal theologies.

He limited the study to churches with fewer than 25 rows of pews so a single student could observe arrival times and worship practices, such as singing and praying. Catholic churches, which tend to be larger and fewer in number than Protestant churches, will be included in a future study, he said.

Sullins believes the findings are "fairly representative of worship patterns in Washington," regardless of denomination.

Catholic University of America - Department of Sociology
The Back Pew by Jeff Larson

Washington Post

11 Apr 2002