It’s a dirty word in some circles. “They mostly grow by transfer.” This critique implies that the church is not reaching people with the gospel, just “stealing” people from other churches like TMobile does to Verizon. It sometimes feels like a gang mindset where once you join, you cannot leave.
The underlying implication is hard to justify, though. “Those people belong to ‘Church A’ and ‘Church B’ should not let them join.” How does a church practically prevent those who wish to attend from doing so? And why? Because they used to attend a different church? Church changing happens often for very good reasons. As church leaders we can accept it or not, but we cannot stop it.
In growth areas, where new people are regularly moving to the area, it can be less painful to attract people who are looking. In towns and regions where population is declining, the same action of searching for a church can be devastating.
Every pastor I know wants to get the gospel to those who are far from Jesus and bring “new” people into the kingdom. Yet, there are times when attracting people searching for a church is healthy. People moving to town, returning to church after a long absence and those coming from non-Christian traditions are all healthy categories of what can be considered “transfer growth.”
Figuring out how to appeal to those who don’t currently attend a church has a lot in common with appealing to those looking for a new church. So focusing on reaching new people can often attract those looking for a change as well.
Recently the Pew Forum released a study, Choosing a New House of Worship, on people looking for new congregations. The research showed that half of all adults (49%) have looked for a new congregation in their lives. Here are some vital takeaways from the study.
Important in switching congregations:
- Quality of sermon (83%)
- Feeling welcomed by leaders (79%)
- Style of services (74%)
- Location (70%)
All churches have the ability to shape or change each of those things. That is good news. Churches can improve on and shape themselves in the primary areas people evaluate when choosing a place to worship.
The most important issue for all groups was sermon quality. It was even more important for protestants (92%) and evangelicals (94%). For churches that like to focus on the preached word, the message is central for the vast majority, so preach well.
Most people prefer to attend close to home and in the style they prefer. It seems obvious but churches can help their community by reaching out primarily to those close to where your facility is. Don’t be the church for everyone. Be the church for your neighbors. They have a built in preference for your location.
The research found that fully 85% said they visited a congregation they were considering joining and 7 in 10 said they talked to people in the congregation. Someone from your church will have a chance to interact with church changers, you just don’t know who, so train everyone to engage guests joyously.
As well, your reputation in the community will play a role in most decisions with 68% talking to friends and colleagues about the congregation. Your people and your social media precede you to those you want to reach.
Children are a Priority
The fifth highest item on the list was children’s education. Naturally, among those with minor children the percentage was higher with two-thirds (65%) citing this as an important factor. Maybe the other third don’t bring their kids to church, or don’t have custody. But if you want to reach families, having an engaging experience for children and teens is critical.
Most Likely to Look
The most common reason for people to find a new congregation was that they moved (34%). Helping those new to your community find you can be a simple way to increase attendance.
Marriage and/or divorce was the second highest cause (11%) for people to look for a new congregation. Caring for people in marital transition (newlyweds, separation, divorce) can help close the back door of the church while strengthening families.
It’s Not Theology
There was less theological consideration for those changing congregations. Only 49% of those who looked considered only the denominations from which they came. Of those who changed, only 3% did so due to the theological beliefs of their old congregation and only 5% changed because their beliefs changed. People change congregations primarily for practical reasons, not theological.
For pastors and denominational leaders, this may trigger panic. Don’t. Be who you are, but know that practical steps to engage guests will have more impact initially than your theological stance. Who you are, and your doctrinal approach is always infused over time into the church but it won’t be an effective calling card.
In general, low commitment people tend to stay where they are. Nearly two-thirds (63%) of those who attend worship services only a few times a year say they have never looked for a new congregation. That is higher than those who have no beliefs, “the nones.” So helping those “Chreasters” (Christmas and Easter only attendees) engage deeply when they do come is a good path to helping them connect more deeply with Christ and His church.
There is some openness among those with no religious affiliation. Three in ten (29%) of the “nones” have looked for a congregation in their lifetime. So just because someone does not believe or attend church now does not mean they never would.
Seventy percent of searchers said finding a new congregation was easy. Over a third, 36% of those who searched, said searching was easy because of the community they found, with 20% saying specifically it was due to being invited by friends or family. So 1 in 5 Americans who searched for a church said finding a new one was easy due to invitations. This is positive data.
Faith changes do shift actions. Of the 27% of adults reporting, attending services at least once or twice a month now, but previously attended less, half of those indicated the change was due to a shift in their beliefs. As you touch lives consistently, their commitment grows as their faith grows.
Fewer than half of respondents who describe their religion as “nothing in particular” (37%) cite lack of belief as the reason they no longer affiliate with a religion. So for the majority of this group, their views don’t rule out a faith community.
Concerns for Church Leaders
Half of all Americans have never searched for a new congregation in their lives. With the mobility of American society, and church attendance generally in decline, it is clear most of these non-switchers have never been engaged in a search for faith. That is a massive audience that is not looking for a church.
So to be the church and fulfill the command of Jesus (Matt. 28:18-20), we literally must go. Go to “them.” Engage with our community, our neighbors and extended family. The church is declining in cultural influence because we often want to shape the culture through levers of power. Yet our culture is open to be shaped through the means of friendship, service and compassion.
Another area of concern is that 22% of Americans attend services rarely or never, but used to attend more often. In this group is 15% of evangelicals. Half of the group cited practical reasons (busyness, priorities, age, etc.) as the primary reason for less attendance. When people attend less, it’s often because it’s not a priority. They can be reached again if you are intentional.
What Can You Do?
Seeing these numbers can create tension for some churches, particularly if you are not growing or have seen attendance decline.
If you’ve ever felt like church changing meant “church decline” for you, these data points do provide hope. To shift the trend it may be time to refocus your priorities to allow church changers to stick and become engaged members. And as you do that well, you’ll often get better at engaging those who are not searching now.
Here are some steps every church you can take right now to captivate church changers.
- Be welcoming. Every church thinks they are warm and welcoming. Many are not. Do whatever is necessary to see the Sunday experience through “new eyes” the way a guest would. Pay for a “secret shopper” to report on your church or bring an experienced church leader in on a Sunday to evaluate. Put your warmest and most engaging people in guest services and greeting. Train everyone to be hospitable. Clean, deodorize, repair and paint everywhere. Take every step necessary so you are sure that every guest has a great experience.
- Get the data. Send short surveys to guests to give you anonymous feedback on their experience. If you hear of a problem, apologize and “repent.” Like sin, if you don’t want to do it again, repent of the error by fixing it so no one else has that problem. You likely won’t hear about every problem, so fix the ones you do hear about to make steady improvement.
- Go local. Most people would prefer a church close to home. So focus on those where you fit that criteria! If you reach those near you, it’s easier to reach their neighbors who are also near to you. Engage in the neighborhoods in a 1-mile radius to serve people, connect, and show compassion. Figure out who they are, their needs and contextualize to them. Launch new groups in nearby neighborhoods. Invite community events into your building. Host the PTA, MOPS, Little League or a music recital. Be in your community and they will think of you first when looking for churches.
- Invest in families. Value children by creating engaging and fun children’s experiences. Put your best volunteers with kids and teens. Throw out the flannel graph. Be creative. Show them Jesus while practically connecting with a kid’s world, but make it fun too (did I mention fun?) Invest in marriages, too, since divorce and marriage are the second most likely reason for people to change churches. Provide teaching, resources and encouragement for marriage transitions and those in crisis. A rescued marriage honors God and makes families stick around.
- Focus on your strengths. Most churches focus on fixing their weak points, but it’s far better to maximize what you do well. If preaching is stellar and worship is average, preach more and sing less. If music is the best part of your service, extend your worship times and teach less. Usually with preaching, less is more.
- Help people invite. Invite cards and e-vites are helpful to make inviting guests easier. But your most effective strategy is to build confidence in your current attendees that they won’t be embarrassed if they do bring guests. That means avoiding “cringe” moments every week. If things occur that would make me “cringe” when I have guests attending, I’m far less likely to invite them. Who wants to have to explain bad moments at church to an unchurched friend who trusted you enough to come? Having high confidence that I won’t be embarrassed is critical to inviting many people to come to church with me.