There was a day when denominational loyalty made it easy for people to find their next church or religious congregation. If a Baptist, a Methodist, or an Episcopalian moved to a new town, they would go directly to the nearest Baptist, Methodist, or Episcopalian church. That day is no more.
Today most people who are looking for a new church or religious congregation shop around with a different set of criteria. Denominational identity is in sharp decline. Independent and non-denominational churches are growing in number, with many of them also growing in size. Many churches are dropping their denominational names, if not their affiliations. A new church today is much more likely to have a name like “New Life Fellowship” than a name like “First Presbyterian Church.”
What drives loyalty?
So if it’s not denominational loyalty that drives affiliation now, what is it? When people look for a new church or religious congregation, what are they seeking?
The American Belief Study posed this question to a carefully-designed, representative sample of 15,000 Americans. It listed 32 items and asked, “If you moved to a new part of the country and were looking for a religious congregation or other religious community, please assign the related importance of each activity to you.” Respondents rated each item on a scale from ‘not important’ to ‘very important.’ The analysis here focuses on those who marked items as ‘somewhat important’ or ‘very important,’ which likely reflects a genuine interest in belonging to a religious congregation or community.
Friendliness and relationships stand out. People are looking for “warm and friendly encounters” as the top item, with “opportunities to develop personal relationships” landing in fourth place. Also in the top ten are “family-oriented activities” and “adult social activities,” which both point toward peoples’ interest in community, fellowship, and meaningful connections.
The importance of warmth and friendliness is clear. This item got a 61% top-two response, nine points higher than the next item on the list. People want to connect with people. Yes, they want to connect with God, but they also want to connect with each other, to be part of a faith community where they find love, acceptance, and fellowship.
Six in ten of those looking for a new religious home are especially looking for a warm and friendly fellowship.
‘Quality sermons’ also stands out, not only because it ranks second in a list of 32 factors but also because there is an 11-point separation between it and the third item on the list. Only two options rated above 50%—friendliness and the sermon—and the next ones after them ranked much lower, at 41% each.
This is a time of change in the American religious landscape, but it’s wrong to say, “Everything is different. Nothing is the same.” It’s more accurate to say, “Some things have changed, and some things have not.” For society in general, the nature of communication, media, discourse, and education has radically changed and is still changing rapidly. And yet the well-crafted sermon endures, timeless and evocative.
Having good-quality sermons and homilies is important or very important to most people looking for a new church or parish.
What, then is a “quality sermon?” After the discussion above about the declining importance of denominationalism, it might seem odd at this point to circle back and admit that the idea of a “quality sermon” differs from one spiritual tradition to another, but it’s undeniable. A quality Presbyterian sermon differs from a quality Pentecostal sermon, and a quality Baptist message differs from a quality Catholic homily. But whatever the tradition, this study shows the enduring importance of good preaching. It means that preachers need time to prepare and opportunities to grow their preaching gifts. Congregations need to allow their pastors, rectors, or priests time and opportunity to prepare and preach well.
What about the other end of the scale—the items people considered unimportant to their new-church or new-congregation decisions?
Several items in this list of low-ranked factors could be seen as meant to serve the community more than the congregation (e.g., addiction support, daycare or after-school programs, health programs, etc.). Does their low position mean religious congregations or communities are unwise to offer them? Likely not. The point is to recognize the function they serve. If the question is how to attract people that are shopping for a new religious community, these activities are probably not the answer.
- The number one thing people are looking for in a new church or religious congregation to join is ‘warm and friendly encounters.’
- Having quality sermons remains highly important to those who are shopping for a new church or congregation.
- Other factors that rate high in this include ‘traditional worship,’ ‘opportunities to develop personal relationships,’ ‘holiday programs/activities,’ and ‘opportunities for volunteering.’
- Classes, support groups, and programs for the community are good, but are not likely to attract people looking to join a new church or religious community.
Ideas for Your Church:
- Be friendly, especially to visitors and newcomers. There is more to this than just providing ‘greeters’ at the door. Reach out to people in ways that let them know you are seeking genuine friendship.
- Whether your church or religious congregation is large or small, make sure people are invited, and encouraged, to connect in authentic personal relationships.
- Give serious attention to the quality of the preaching. Recognize its importance. Make sure those who preach are given the time needed for study, learning, meditation, spiritual growth, and preparation.
- Make the most of holidays. Celebrate with joy, with holy awe, and with excellence in the religious and liturgical arts.
About this study
This online study among 14,942 American adults was conducted by Campbell Rinker for ACST from October 2020 through February 2021. Results were balanced by US region, 19 ‘Mosaic’ demographic clusters from Experian, and weighted by age to align with known population characteristics. The study carries a maximum margin of error of ±1.97% at the 95% confidence level within any US Census region. A comparative 2017 study involved the same size audience.
About the Authors
Dirk Rinker is president and CEO of Campbell Rinker, which has been a leading market researcher for nonprofits since the early 1990s. He has designed and implemented research projects for hundreds of prominent mission organizations, charities, universities, and museums in the U.S. and internationally – helping clients understand and act on the attitudes, motivations, and perceptions of their valuable constituencies.
Michael Jaffarian is a writer, researcher, and consultant to nonprofits. He and his wife were missionaries for 33 years, serving in Singapore, Virginia, Los Angeles, and England. Most of his ministry has been in global mission research. He has studied and written on growth trends among tens of thousands of Christian denominations globally.