NASHVILLE, Tenn. — This portion of the LifeWay Research study of adults who switched churches takes a more in-depth look at how adults go about searching for their current church.
The most important factor in a church switcher’s decision to attend their current church is the beliefs and doctrine of the church, with 89 percent of respondents indicating it was important. The second most significant factor is preaching (87 percent), and the third, at 86 percent, is authenticity of the church members and the pastor.
“These numbers indicate church switchers select a new church based on what the church says it believes and whether they live it out,” said Scott McConnell, director of LifeWay Research.
Since 97 percent of church switchers attend worship services, it’s not surprising that in addition to preaching, worship style (80 percent) and music (69 percent) are also among the top ten most important factors in choosing a church.
Purpose and relationships characterize other important church selection attributes: care for community (76 percent), evidence of God’s work and changed lives (74 percent), church members with whom to build relationships (73 percent), and unity among church members (71 percent).
The option “opportunities to learn biblical truth,” also made the top-ten list of decision-makers for switchers, with 70 percent indicating it was important in choosing their church.
Only half the respondents said denomination was an important factor. Forty-nine percent said location. Other less-major issues were worship times (47 percent), having acquaintances at church (47 percent), and church size (31 percent).
Introduction to the church
Switchers are most commonly first introduced to their new church by an invitation from a friend or acquaintance (32 percent). Word of mouth and existing familiarity with the church are also common means of introduction (27 percent each). Twenty-five percent say their first introduction to the church was seeing it while driving.
Overall, the most common search method of switchers looking for a new church is in-person visits (83 percent). Sixty-four percent said they rely on recommendations from family and friends. Some switchers turn to Web sites and local advertisements as their resource for finding a church (21 percent and 19 percent respectively).
Of the adults who switch due to a residential move, they are more likely to use phonebooks or advertisements (28 percent) compared to those who switch for other reasons (14 percent). Movers are also more likely to use the Internet or online search tools (28 percent) compared to those who switch for other reasons (17 percent).
Visiting the church
The first event or activity most switchers choose to attend is a worship service (88 percent) over a small group Bible study (4 percent), musical event (3 percent), or a social gathering (1 percent).
Only 16 percent of adults looking for a new church decide to attend based on one visit. Almost half of switchers (46 percent) visit a new church at least four times before deciding to attend regularly.
In contrast to the hypocritical and judgmental members church switchers fled from at the previous church, two-thirds describe their current church’s approach to welcoming them as positively impacting their decision to attend regularly.
Among the visitor welcoming methods, the most common is being “personally welcomed by congregants,” with 67 percent of respondents indicating that was their church’s approach. Out of those who experienced a greeting by congregants, 82 percent said it positively impacted their decision to join that church.
One respondent said, “We felt so welcome and the people were so nice, it would have been hard not to continue going.” Another said, “I loved the immediate feeling of family when I attended for the first time.”
Being personally greeted by the pastor or another minister elicited the most positive response among methods of recognizing visitors, with 84 percent of respondents saying it positively impacted their church decision. However, it’s a less common approach; only 49 percent of respondents experienced it when they visited their current church.
Filling out an information card was a common “process” for recognizing visitors, with 62 percent of switchers indicating that was their church’s approach. Seventy-five percent said it positively impacted their decision to attend.
One respondent said, “I liked being able to ease into the church rather than have people feeling forced to introduce themselves to me.” Another added, “It was a low-key approach, which I appreciated.”
A less common welcoming approach is being formally recognized during the service (18 percent), but 80 percent of switchers who experienced it at their current church said it positively impacted their church choice.
Respondents had mixed reviews of the formal recognition method. One said, “It makes you feel welcome,” but others indicated they didn’t like being called out: “I don’t like being pointed out or asked to stand.”
Regardless of the method, only 2 percent of respondents said their current church’s way of welcoming them negatively impacted their decision to attend.
Twenty-nine percent of church switchers indicate their church’s approach to welcoming them had no impact on their decision to attend regularly.
Respondents said: “Other aspects of the church impacted by decision more.” “Filling out a registration card didn’t have any bearing on whether or not we would attend. We like the preaching and the music.” “I chose the church based on doctrine, not on ‘welcome.'”
A quarter of the adults who switch churches, including those who move, stop attending church altogether for more than three months. Twenty percent stop attending for a year or more.
Of the 28 percent who take a lengthy break between churches (more than three months), 60 percent are not actively looking but open to trying a new church. Twenty-eight percent are actively looking for a different church, but 9 percent have no intention of returning to church at all.
When asked what influenced the decision to return to church, 51 percent responded they “simply felt it was time to return,” and 41 percent felt that God was calling them to go back.
Invitations were equally important in prompting those between churches to find a new church. These personal invitations came from friends (32 percent), adult family members (18 percent), and their children (6 percent).
When asked what motivations prompted church attendance again, 68 percent answered, “to bring me closer to God.” To fill a gap (63 percent) and to be around others with similar values (52 percent) were two other top motivators.
A final difference between church switchers and those who have not returned to church is that 76 percent of church switchers consider themselves devout Christians with a strong faith in God. In contrast, only 19 percent of the formerly churched describe themselves as having strong faith in God, and 39 percent are doubtful about Christianity, religion, or God.
“These numbers demonstrate that the strength of one’s relationship with God is much more important in determining whether someone will return to church than the type of initial disappointment that caused them to leave their previous church,” McConnell said.