Searching for a new church is a common experience for Americans. Nearly half have done so at least once in their life and a quarter have done so within the last five years, according to a new study by Pew Religion. But why do they leave and what ultimately makes them decide where to attend? That gets to the heart of the new data collected by Pew.
Pew found that Americans changed churches or places of worship for a variety of reasons. Most commonly this was because they moved (34 percent), got divorced (11 percent), or for other pragmatic reasons (3 percent). Ideological reasons were also frequently cited, including disagreements with clergy (11 percent) and changes in beliefs (5 percent).
Perhaps even more insightfully, Pew asked what characteristics played an “important role” in picking a new church. Four major reasons were cited by most respondents: quality of the sermons (83 percent), feeling welcomed by the church’s leaders (79 percent), the style of the worship services (74 percent), and the location of the church (70 percent).
Three more reasons ranked lower, but were still mentioned by close to about half of respondents: resources for children to receive instruction (56 percent), connecting with friends and family (48 percent), service opportunities (42 percent).
Sermon quality was particularly important for Protestant church seekers (92 percent), especially Evangelicals (94 percent). Interestingly, this was also most important for atheists and agnostics (76 percent) when seeking a new faith community.
Other faith traditions emphasized different reasons for picking a new place of worship. Location was the most important factor for Catholics. Seventy-six percent of Catholics named it as their most significant consideration. Religious “nones” and individuals from non-Christian faiths said that the style of worship ranked as their highest concern.
Pew broke this data down in the following table:
Unsurprisingly, the decision-making process usually involved visiting a new church for the vast majority of seekers (85 percent). Most also based their decision on interacting with members (69 percent), the recommendation of a friend or coworker (68 percent), and talking to clergy (55 percent). This illustrates that finding a new church usually involved a strong interpersonal element.
This data heightens the contrast between differing strategies for reaching new members. As Pew’s data show, this largely depends on the demographic a church is attempting to reach. In a timely discussion, Pastor Andy Stanley and Dr. Russell Moore recently discussed these varied approaches at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commissions (ERLC) conference in Nashville, as Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) Evangelical Director Chelsen Vicari reported last week.
Stanley’s approach was to create a very welcoming and non-confrontational church environment where marginally religious (and even non-religious) individuals would feel comfortable attending. Stanley affirmed that there was absolute truth, but stated that “our goal is not to simply be right, our goal isn’t simply to make a point, our goal is to invite people to take a step towards surrendering their lives to Jesus Christ.”
Moore emphasized a divergent approach. He placed greater weight on theological accuracy and appeals to scriptural authority. As Vicari summarized it, he longed for “a consistent confidence in the Bible as the Word of God among church leaders as they speak both to the congregation and to the world,” while still joining with Stanley in urging “the American church to have a sense of broken-heartedness for secular society.”