By Bob Smietana
When it comes to finding a new church, a warm welcome and the worship style matter almost as much as a good sermon.
A new report from Pew Research Center found about half of Americans have looked for a new church at some point in their lives. The report is based on Pew’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study, which surveyed 35,000 Americans.
Evangelicals (67 percent) are most likely to have looked for a new church. Catholics (41 percent) and the “nones”—the religiously unaffiliated—(29 percent) are least likely.
Most church shoppers find the process easy. But for about a quarter (28 percent) of them, the process of finding a new church is difficult.
Seven key takeaways for church leaders from Pew’s research:
1. Church shoppers show up. They don’t always look at your website.
The most common way to find a new church is by showing up, according to Pew. Eighty-five percent attended worship services at churches they were considering. Seven in 10 talked a friend (68 percent) or church member (69 percent) about their decision. Just over half (55 percent) talked a pastor or clergy leader.
By contrast, a little over a third (37 percent) looked for information online. One in 5 (19 percent) made a phone call.
“Perhaps as a result of the value they place on good sermons, church leadership and the style of worship services, many people—even in this age of technology—find there is no substitute for face-to-face interaction when seeking information about a new religious home,” says the report from Pew Research.
2. Young people like the web. But they ask their friends where to go church
Younger Americans (those 18-30) are most likely to look online for information about a new church (59 percent). Older Americans (those over 65) are least likely (12 percent).
Still, younger Americans are also more likely to ask a friend (82 percent) or congregation member (75 percent) about the church. Only about half of older Americans ask a congregation member (55 percent) or a friend (54 percent).
3. Sermons matter. So does a warm welcome.
Eighty-three percent of Americans who looked for a new church say the quality of the sermon played an important role in their choice.
Seventy-nine percent say a warm welcome mattered. So did the church’s style of worship (74 percent) and location (70 percent).
Other important factors included kids programs (56 percent), having friends and family at the church (48 percent), and having volunteer opportunities (42 percent).
Americans look first and foremost for a place where they like the preaching and the tone set by the congregation’s leaders, according to Pew Research.
4. Most people look for a church while moving. Few are mad at their old church.
About a third of Americans (34 percent) looked for a new church because they moved. Eleven percent say they looked for a new church because they disagreed with a clergy member at their previous church. A similar number of those searching for a new church switched churches because they got married or divorced.
Few (7 percent) had trouble with their old church, changed beliefs (5 percent), or had social (3 percent) or practical reasons (3 percent) for finding a new church.
5. Some Americans like to go to church. Some don’t.
About half of Americans (51 percent) say they go to church on a regular basis. For Pew, that means once or twice a month. A quarter (23 percent) say they’ve always gone to church on a regular basis. A few more (27 percent) say they go to church more than they used to. Among churchgoers, 3 in 10 have looked for a new church in the last five years.
The other half of Americans (49 percent) rarely or never go to church. Twenty-seven percent say they never attended church much in the past. Twenty-two percent used to attend church more.
Those who attend worship services more frequently want to be close to God, according to Pew’s study. Those who stay away were too busy or had other practical difficulties that kept them from church.
“Belief brings people to worship, it seems, while logistics keep people way,” wrote Emma Green of The Atlantic.
6. Finding a church is often easy. But sometimes it’s not.
Seven in 10 church shoppers (71 percent) say the process of finding a new church home is fairly easy. Finding the right location helped (43 percent), as did being invited by friends (20 percent).
Disagreements over theology (26 percent), inconvenient locations (24 percent), and a lack of fellowship (23 percent) makes finding a church harder.
7. Denominational loyalty isn’t completely dead.
About half of church shoppers (49 percent) say they would only consider churches in their denomination when looking for a new church. Around half (48 perfect) would consider other denominations.
Members of historically black churches (66 percent) and Catholics (63 percent) are most likely to stay in their home denominations.
Mainline Protestants (52 percent) and evangelicals (47 percent) are most likely to consider other denominations.
BOB SMIETANA is the former senior writer for Facts & Trends.