Fascinating findings about the religious lives of Americans are constantly surfacing, and none more fascinating - at least for this particular weekend - than the claim that people actually spend as much time worshiping in the holiday season as they spend shopping.
Or so they say. In a nationwide survey, Americans reported that they devoted an average of 16 hours to holiday shopping and spent an average of 16.4 hours in worship.
Yes, it is odd how worshipers never seem to produce quite the level of traffic jams and crowded aisles that shoppers traditionally create on the weekend after Thanksgiving.
But the poll was taken by a reputable and experienced firm, Yankelovich Partners, as part of a series done for Lutheran Brotherhood, a nonprofit insurance and benefit society in Minneapolis that serves individual Lutherans and church and community charities.
The poll was based on a sample of 1,027 adults questioned Oct. 1 and 2 and comes with a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Of course, poll takers recognize that people often answer questions with the answer they think they should give rather than with the answer that actually reflects their behavior.
But nothing in the news release from Lutheran Brotherhood hinted at such a possibility.
“It seems that many people haven’t allowed commercialism to overshadow the spiritual basis of the holidays,” was the optimistic comment from Leslee Nestingen, an official of the organization.
Another official at Lutheran Brotherhood kindly sought further analysis of the survey’s findings from Yankelovich. Unfortunately, everyone at the firm had taken off from Wednesday to Monday, possibly to spend the time in equal parts worshiping and shopping.
If at first glance it seems unlikely that Americans populate places of worship no less than they do shopping malls during the December holidays, at second glance, it seems, well, even more unlikely.
Think about it. Even if one included all of Advent, the season preceding Christmas that begins today for most Christians, as part of the “holidays,” people would have to worship 3-1/2 hours on each of its four Sundays as well as on Christmas to achieve the 16.4 hours claimed.
A lot of the clergy might wonder how they missed this, especially since other surveys suggest that well over half of the country’s population is not to be seen in a church, mosque or synagogue for even 10 minutes on most of those weekends.
But maybe the explanation lies in how people understand “worshiping.” Perhaps they think of all their private prayers or Bible reading or lighting Advent wreaths or even listening to carols. Fair enough.
But then shouldn’t the same standard be applied to the other side of the equation? Shouldn’t “shopping” include all the time spent making lists, skimming advertisements, mulling over gifts for Junior and Aunt Gertrude and wrapping presents?
In the end, it may suffice that Americans merely think they ought to spend as much time worshiping as shopping, regardless of what they actually do. Maybe it is a goal.
“It is not our position to determine whether people were answering honestly or not,” said Amy Krogstad, a spokeswoman for Lutheran Brotherhood. “But we found it encouraging that they felt worship was of equal importance.
“Considering the barrage of messages people get about shopping,” Krogstad added, “how much more focused people might be on worship if there were the same kind of emphasis on it through advertising and marketing.”
Incidentally, the poll also found that nine out of 10 Americans considered the holidays “too commercial.”
Women reported spending more time shopping than men - but also more time worshiping. People with incomes under $20,000 spent less time shopping than those with incomes over $50,000 - and a lot more time worshiping.
There is another way of looking at this survey. It was offered by a young believer in the church of shop-till-you-drop who was asked to account for the finding that people spent as many hours worshiping as shopping.
“Oh, that’s simple,” she said. “They’re the same hours.”