Nebraskans living in towns of fewer than 500 people attend church less than those in larger towns, according to the latest Nebraska Rural Poll, a sign that churches may not be the community resource they once were.
The 17th annual University of Nebraska-Lincoln poll was sent to 6,350 households in Nebraska's 84 nonmetropolitan counties in March and April. The results, released Thursday, are based on 2,323 responses.
As in past years, the poll asked about rural Nebraskans' attitudes regarding their communities. This year, questions about church were a new addition.
Seventy-five percent of poll respondents said they are members of a church, with 39 percent saying they attend services at least weekly. By community size, residents who live in or near towns of fewer than 500 were least likely to attend weekly church services; 35 percent reported doing so.
That was a bit of a surprise, said Philip Schwadel, associate professor of sociology and a member of the Rural Poll team.
"I expected them to be more highly churched," said Schwadel, who specializes in issues related to religion and faith.
The relatively low rate of church attendance in the smallest communities may stem from decreasing numbers of churches, including a lack of diversity in denominations available in small towns, Schwadel speculated.
"Church doesn't seem to be the symbol of stability it once was," he added.
However, rural Nebraskans remain spiritually satisfied, the poll indicated. Seventy-five percent said they were somewhat or very satisfied with that part of their lives.
By region, the Panhandle lags in church membership, at 65 percent, far lower than membership in the northeast and southeast regions, which is 78 percent. Cheryl Burkhart-Kriesel, a UNL Extension educator based there, said it likely results from the greater distances to churches of a person’s denomination.
Overall, 77 percent of respondents said their church serves as a resource to the entire community.