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Did Oprah Winfrey just tell Americans they should be going to church?

Oprah Winfrey speaks at the 24th Television Academy Hall of Fame on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017, at the Television Academy's Saban Media Center in North Hollywood, Calif. Phil McCarten, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — In the wake of mass shootings in Texas and Ohio, one of America's most influential women said that many Americans lack a "core moral center" that previous generations found in church.

But pastors shouldn't expect Oprah Winfrey's comments to fill empty pews this Sunday, since Winfrey then went on to suggest that people can develop morality through secular means, such as storytelling.

The comments were part of an interview Winfrey had with Renee Bargh of the syndicated TV show Extra. Bargh asked Winfrey what she believes is the root cause of the recent carnage in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, and other mass shootings across the country.

"I think what people are missing is a core moral center," Winfrey replied.

"Churches used to do that. … It was a central place you could come to and there was a core center of values about a way of living and a way of being in the world."

It sounded like Winfrey was about to suggest that Americans return to church, a place they've increasingly been avoiding in recent decades. Nearly one-quarter of Americans say they aren't affiliated with any faith group, and nearly one-third say they seldom or never attend services, according to Pew Research Center.

Winfrey did suggest that something vital has been lost as the number of worshippers has declined, saying that "we will continue to be lost" until we again have a central place with a core sense of values.

But although she has previously said how much she loves going to church, Winfrey stopped short of an endorsement of the practice, depriving America's houses of worship of the celebrated "Oprah Effect." Here's what Winfrey said, and why it matters.

The Oprah Effect

Winfrey is usually at or near the top of listings of America's most influential women. (In the latest, by Ranker.com, she's No. 5, behind Michelle Obama, Queen Elizabeth, Ellen DeGeneres and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.)

She holds enormous sway among her fans. The Smithsonian has featured her in an exhibition. And there's even a term to describe how a word from Winfrey can ripple across the country to sell books and other products: "The Oprah Effect" describes the boost in sales that occurs after Winfrey says she loves a book or deems a product one of her "Favorite Things."

The Oprah Effect also extends to people endorsed by Oprah, as Maria Puente wrote for USA Today.

"Ever heard of psychologist Dr. Phil and health-expert Dr. Oz before Oprah reached out and touched them? Alternative-medicine advocate Deepak Chopra and financial adviser Suze Orman? Lifestyle designer Nate Berkus?" Puente wrote.

"They're all celebrities now, after years of appearances on Oprah's daytime talk show led to their own TV shows."

Had Winfrey said that America has lost its moral center and people need to return to church, the old term "Sunday best" might have recovered its meaning and Americans could have started honoring the Sabbathagain as they did in generations past.

But although she has previously said how much she loves going to church, Winfrey stopped short of an endorsement of the practice. In fact, she went full Marianne Williamson (coincidentally, another beneficiary of the Oprah Effect) by suggesting that storytelling could replace churches.

"That's why I actually believe storytelling is a form of a new religion because it's a place where people can gather and be inspired and see themselves and get filled," said Winfrey, who happened to be promoting a new inspirational drama set to debut Aug. 14 on Winfrey's television network, OWN.

"David Makes Man" is about an African-American teen struggling to lift himself and his family out of poverty. According to Kimberly C. Roberts, writing in the Philadelphia Tribune, the show "explores childhood trauma and the power of imagination to survive."

'Not a traditionalist'

Winfrey herself has become a sort of religion, cultural analysts have said.

In 2002, Christianity Today dubbed her "one of the most influential spiritual leaders in America," and in 2011, a columnist in The New York Times wrote that Winfrey is the leader of a "worldwide cult" that "is at once Christian and pantheistic, African-American in origin but global in reach."

Although Winfrey was raised Southern Baptist, she talks mostly today about being spiritual rather than religious (just like 27 percent of Americans do, according to Pew). But she said in the AARP Bulletin in 2015 that she prays every night and loves worship services even though she doesn't go every week.

"I'm definitely not a traditionalist because a traditionalist would be going to church every Sunday. I still love church," Winfrey said.

"My favorite church service is T.D. Jakes at the Potter's House. I don't think there is a better preacher in the country. His ability to interpret scripture is like no other. I also like some of Joel Osteen's work," she added. (Jakes and Osteen are both pastors of megachurches in Texas.)

But Winfrey has embraced spiritual philosophies outside the church in which she was raised, and when asked about that, she replied, "My response is that I love the church. I love what the church offers to us as a culture — black people in particular. We would be nowhere without the black church.

"But for me to live in a world that is not inclusive of other people who are not Christian would be the opposite of Christianity," she said.

Benefits of church

While Winfrey dodged the AARP interviewer's question about what exactly she believes, it's clear she respects the work of churches, and faith leaders might wish she'd take a stronger stance in extolling the work that they do.

The decline of churchgoing is changing America in statistically significant ways, not only in our growing Bible illiteracy, but also in fewer volunteers in natural disasters, Kelsey Dallas of the Deseret News has reported.

Research has shown that "culturally conservative white Americans who are disengaged from church experience less economic success and more family breakdown than those who remain connected, and they grow more pessimistic and resentful," Peter Beinart wrote for The Atlantic.

While such studies only show an association, not a cause, "even within the white working class, those who don't regularly attend church are more likely to suffer from divorce, addiction, and financial distress," Beinart wrote. He also posited that churchgoing leads to less polarization and intolerance. "Although American churches are heavily segregated, it's possible that the modest level of integration they provide promotes cross-racial bonds," he wrote.

And while his observation was based on personal experience, not on science, the late Catholic monk Thomas Merton gave perhaps the simplest argument in favor of churchgoing in his book "The Seven Storey Mountain": "One came out of the church with a kind of comfortable and satisfied feeling that something had been done that needed to be done."

But even without Winfrey's explicit endorsement, America's churches will be just fine, says Glenn T. Stanton, director of global family formation studies at Focus on the Family and the author of new book "The Myth of the Dying Church."

Writing in The Federalist, Stanton said, "The percentage of Americans who attend church more than once a week, pray daily, and accept the Bible as wholly reliable and deeply instructive to their lives has remained absolutely, steel-bar constant for the last 50 years or more, right up to today."