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The Secret to an Irresistible Church

D. Michael Lindsay

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.

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.

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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