Polling has become the only polite language for talking about religious experience in public life. Facts like church attendance are much easier to trade than messy views about what happens to babies when they die, or the nature of sin, or whether people have literal soul mates. There’s an implicit gap between people’s private self-understanding of their own moral nature and the way those complex identities are reduced in the media and public-research reports.
Robert Wuthnow wrote:
... polling’s success has come at a price. Polling has taught us to think about religion in certain ways that happen to be convenient for conducting polls. The questions tap a few aspects of belief and behavior that can be tracked as trends and rarely provide opportunities to hear what people actually think. Polling’s credibility depends on a narrow definition of science and an equally limited understanding of the errors to which its results are subject. Its legitimacy hinges mostly on predicting elections and making news. With few exceptions, polling about religion is an industry based on the use of the single method of asking questions in a survey, not on multiple methods or extensive knowledge about religion itself. Above all, it depends on a public that is willing to believe that polls are sufficiently valuable to spend the time it takes to answer questions when pollsters call.
We spend good money and good resources on outcomes that have marginal usefulness and even more questionable reliability. Yet instead of polls decreasing, they are increasing. Politics could not live without polls to fuel the pundits and give the campaigns a glimpse into the landscape of America but we have to ask if they have provided better candidates, more informed politicians, and better leaders. The same is surely true of the usefulness of polling to the churches. We are surely beyond the naive assumption that anything Barna or Gallup or any other organization says about religion in America is gospel yet we seem addicted to their information no matter how uncertain we are as to its authenticity. It is surely reliable so far as it goes but even then it is but a snapshot in time and depends too much upon the mood of the people and circumstances of the moment to present us with an objective picture of religion and the religious. Even then, we read the headlines and adjust the plans of so many aspects of the faith according to what the pollster tells us (or does not tell us). That is the problem.
In the end I would suggest going cold turkey. Nothing can stop the media from pursuing the poll as an accurate barometer of religion in America but we in the Church do not have to pay attention to it. When it comes up with reality too shocking to be true, it probably is too good to be true. When it comes up with what we already thought we knew, we should not necessarily be consoled when it appears we were proven correct. So what should we do? How about concentrate on preaching the Gospel, teaching the faith, administering the Sacraments, visiting the sick, comforting the grieving, and admonishing the erring -- you know, the stuff that we write into call documents! How about putting the financial muscle that funds such polls and our reactions into the faithful calling of pastor of parish in actually doing the work of ministry? How about paying attention to the stranger, the neighbor in need, and the family members estranged from organized religion and using there the resources of time, money, and energy once wasted stewing and fretting over what the polls did or did not tell us? How about making sure we do what we have been called by God to do and then trusting the Lord to what He has promised to do?
I don't know about you but I think that last thing we need to do is to distract our people from their baptismal vocation and the mission of the parish and focus them on their personal happiness or contentment with this doctrine or that, this practice or that, or this person or that. Truth be told, I am happy to be released from the nearly constant burden of navel gazing -- even though it does pique some idle and mostly evil curiosity from my sinful nature. If the Word of God is being faithfully preached here, the doctrine faithfully taught according to Scripture, creed, and confession, and worship faithful to the same, should I even care if folks are contented? Maybe it is the whisper of my ego that says "no, don't bother" but I am more and more of the mind that God is telling me not to waste too much time and energy on shallow questions, questionable answers, and generalized responses. Maybe we should all give it up for Lent. . . or Advent? Why wait!!