What’s the secret to an irresistible church or ministry? Perhaps not what you think. Dig in to our exclusive research on this topic and find out what it means for you.
People are drawn to friendly places. From the greeters at Wal-Mart to the smiling campus tour guides on Ivy League campuses, institutions today appreciate the value of creating a positive first impression. And building a sense of community is part of the winning formula for places such as Barnes & Noble and Starbucks as much as it is for effective, cutting-edge churches. But until recently, no hard data existed that could confirm or deny the value of creating people-friendly churches — congregations that foster caring communities of friendship and spiritual growth.
The results are in on the nation’s first and most comprehensive examination of the subject, and the church in America ought to heed what people in the pews have to say. In a national survey of American adults (over the age of 18) who are members of various Christian churches across the country, The Gallup Organization asked a representative sample how satisfied they are with their churches and with their spiritual lives, as well as the factors that contribute to a healthy church. The 1,002 sample respondents also talked about why they join and sometimes leave particular congregations, along with a host of other important findings.
Conducted under the sponsorship of Group Publishing, Inc., the study uncovers the effect of church friendliness on a range of outcomes, such as church attendance patterns and active volunteerism, revealing several intriguing results. So what can the study teach us about healthy congregations? Let’s begin by examining churches whose members say they’re very satisfied with their current congregation.
Friendships with other church members is one of the main reasons respondents say they join a church.
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Developing Friendships — Twenty-nine percent of American church members say they joined a church for friendship, and these figures are even higher among younger adults and those who’ve attended their churches for less than five years. Where do these friendships develop? The most popular answer is “through fellowship or fun times,” suggesting that informal times for friendship building may be the most effective strategy.
Other popular venues where church members build relationships include volunteering and serving together, during worship, and over a shared meal. Almost one in two church members say they build friendships with other adults through their children’s activities. One interesting finding is that Bible studies or small-group gatherings aren’t the principal arenas in which church friendships are formed. While these types of settings provide much-needed opportunities for Christian education and pastoral support, it appears that they aren’t as likely as other venues for friendship development.
Differing Needs — Further analysis on reasons for joining a church reveals clear differences across religious traditions. Although 34 percent of Protestants say they’ve joined a congregation because of friendships with members at a particular church, only 14 percent of Catholics have done the same. In addition, newer church members (less than five years) are more likely to report joining because of friendships within the church than church members who have attended their congregations for more than 10 years (36 percent compared to 23 percent). Apparently, interpersonal relationships are more important reasons for joining among younger adults (ages 18 to 34), among Protestants, and among those who have been at their current churches for a shorter period of time.
Attractive Staff — As important as friendships with other church members can be in leading people to join a particular church, the pastor and the ministers can play an even larger role. Nearly half of the respondents (45 percent) say they joined a church because they “liked the pastor or ministers.”
This personal connection with the church leadership is even more important among college graduates, of whom 50 percent said they joined a church for this reason, as well as younger adults and adults with elementary-age children. The incidence of pastors or ministers knowing congregants’ names is highly correlated to frequent church attendance and the size of the congregation. For example, 92 percent of church members in a congregation who have fewer than 100 members say their pastor knows them by name. Ninety percent of weekly church attenders claim the same. About one in seven church members across the country (14 percent) say that their minister doesn’t know them by name. As an aside, this is approximately the same percentage of people who seldom or never attend the church (even though they’re members), who are dissatisfied with their church, and those who are least likely to describe their congregation as caring or friendly.