The Secret to an Irresistible Church

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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
now, 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.

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Now, however, 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 in the fall of 2004 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.

Why Join?

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.

Why Leave?

Forty-two percent of the church members surveyed said they had
left a church for reasons other than relocation. Protestants tend
to leave their churches more often than Catholics (47 percent vs.
28 percent).

For even more dramatic differences on the matter, compare
younger adults to senior adults. Church members between 18 and 34
are much more likely to report leaving their churches for reasons
other than relocation (54 percent) than church members over 65 (26
percent). A clear, positive, linear relationship between age
progression and leaving the church exists.

Disappointment With the Pastor or Minister
This is the primary reason American church members say they left
their churches. This disappointment contributes to leaving even
more among certain subpopulations, including younger adults,
parents of children under 13, and parents of teenagers.

Life-Stage Impacts — Parents of children
between 13 and 18 tend to be more likely to leave a church than the
general churched population in the United States. Over half of
America’s parents of teenagers in the church say they’ve left their
churches for a reason other than relocation at some point. For
every possible response including disappointment with the minister,
with relationships they had with other parishioners, or with their
children’s relationships with other kids at the church — parents
of teenagers are at least 8 percentage points higher than the
general adult population to say that they’ve left a church at some
point for one of these reasons.

Youth ministers across the nation talk about a trend among the
parents of students in their youth groups, and this study suggests
youth ministers’ concerns are well-founded. Whereas previous
generations of parents may’ve driven their children and brought
them to church with them, many parents today bring their young
people to church and drop them off. A refrain I hear among youth
ministers is that if they need to locate the parents of their
junior high students during a youth Bible study on a Wednesday
night, they would have a better chance of finding them at the
Starbucks or 24 Hour Fitness located around the corner than they
would at the church’s prayer meeting or choir rehearsal. The data
demonstrate that parents of teenagers aren’t as connected as other
church members: Only 34 percent of them have a best friend in their
churches (compared to 39 percent of the general churched
population) and they’re less likely to say they feel like they
belong, Clearly, the church needs to devote more attention to this
important group.

Relational Hazards — This study also confirms
the existence of relational hazards. Just as relationships can be
pivotal for some people in joining a given congregation, they can
also cause people to leave. Within the churched U.S. population,
some people are more “wired” for relationships, and church
friendships are extremely important to them. For these members,
church friendships have been pivotal to their joining a particular
congregation. Whereas only 15 percent of the general churched
population say they’ve left a church because the people weren’t
friendly, three times that number (46 percent) of church members
who are relationally-wired left their churches because they found
the people unfriendly.

As important as relationships are to church health, we must not
exaggerate their influence in causing people to leave a given
congregation. The noticeably greater stability of Roman Catholics’
church membership provides a helpful case study. As mentioned
earlier, Roman Catholics are less likely to report leaving a church
for any reason (28 percent compared to 42 percent of the general
churched population). However, Roman Catholics are also less likely
to report deep friendships with other church members. They’re
considerably less likely to have a best friend in their church, to
have shared a meal with church members recently, and to have church
friendships that exist beyond the weekly worship services. So the
proclivity to leave a church may reflect more the Protestant
penchant for “church shopping” — as religious consumers often say
they do — than a great erosion of church-based relationships. We
can infer from the data that relationships with other church
members and the pastor may bring a person into the church, but it
doesn’t appear to have the same degree of effect in causing people
to leave the church, at least not across all demographic
categories.

Valuing Friendliness

For years, retail businesses such as Gap have demonstrated the
value of greeting people as they enter the store. These greetings
aren’t off-putting. Rather, they’re simple, sincere words of
welcome. Market research suggests that browsers are less likely to
leave immediately if greeted in the first few minutes by a staff
member, and shoppers are more likely to approach a salesperson if
they’ve first been approached themselves. In many ways, we’re
passive consumers; even if we take the initiative to enter a store,
we expect the salesperson to be friendly, appreciative of our
interest, and willing to help us find what we’re looking for.

Why should church shoppers — which many spiritual seekers could
be called — be any different? Church leaders should look for
unobtrusive ways to welcome newcomers. Establish systems to ensure
every person in attendance on a given Sunday is greeted at least
once, whether that involves greeters at the front door, an informal
time for fellowship during or after worship, or even better, both.
Relationship is at the core of Christian community, and
relationship can only occur in the presence of knowing and being
known. Church leaders can help facilitate relationship-building by
implementing strategies that ensure every person in attendance
receives a personal touch. Look for creative, subtle ways to
welcome newcomers that show appreciation for their interest.

Why Stay?

From my own experience, churches can succeed in one area — say,
in demonstrating that they care for a particular family — that in
the end can influence other outcomes. My wife and I found a church
we visited quite unfriendly, and in turn, we weren’t very satisfied
with our experience there.

One day after church, we were talking with a couple about the
church. Just as I was about to mention our disappointment with the
congregation’s disinterest in reaching out to newcomers, the
husband said how surprised they’d been at the depth of care they’d
received. From home-cooked meals to secondhand baby equipment and
clothing, this congregation had showered the young couple with
kindness. They, in turn, had decided their initial impressions of
the church as cold and aloof were completely wrong. As we walked to
our cars, the wife said, “We now can’t imagine worshiping at any
other place. This has been our best experience in a church
ever.”

Church leaders, take heart. If your congregation excels at
outreach and acts of compassion but isn’t populated with winsome,
outgoing people, church members can still regard it as a healthy
congregation where they’re very satisfied. By the same token,
congregations who are good at welcoming newcomers but not as
compassionate during times of need can still evoke positive
sentiments from church members. Friendliness and thoughtfulness,
working in tandem — as is usually the case — but also in
isolation, produce faith communities where seekers join, where
church members belong, and where the faithful mature.


D. Michael Lindsay is is a speaker, author, and sociologist,
and currently serving as the Harold W. Dodds Fellow at Princeton
University. Please keep in mind that phone numbers and addresses
are subject to change.


Belonging and Engaging

Three in four church members (75 percent) describe their church
as “very friendly.” But certain groups are even more likely to
describe their churches in this way including:

  • smaller congregations (less than 100 members), where 84 percent
    say their church is very friendly.
  • older church members (over age 65) where 83 percent grade their
    church as very friendly. Incidentally, church members who are
    senior adults, generally speaking, have a more positive view of
    their churches in almost all comparisons.
  • Protestants compared to Catholic (79 percent vs. 65
    percent).
  • church members with friendships that extend beyond the worship
    services (83 percent).

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