Wednesday, December 14, 2011

What Brings People to Church? The Survey Says...

"Personal invitation from someone you know" is by far the most cited reason people first heard about and then started attending a United Methodist Church, according to findings about the United Methodist Sample in the latest US Congregational Life Survey. **

Here are two charts, courtesy of GCFA,  that tell the story about what does, and does not so much, influence the decisions people make to start attending one of our congregations.

How did you learn about this congregation?

Look especially at the top two reasons, comprising over half of all responses (55.9%). The two biggest factors, by far, included someone the person already knew telling them about the church and noticing the building as they passed by. "Cold calling" is not that effective, or maybe just not that frequently done-- only 1.6%. Now look at the role of advertising. If you don't count the phone book (most churches only list rather than advertise there) it's a grand total of 1.4% who first heard about the church through an ad-- of any sort. Oh-- and the Internet? Hardly a factor at all in terms of "first impressions."  

What brought you here the first time?

It's one thing to hear about an congregation, and another actually to start attending it. But the results are still strikingly similar to what we see above. Nearly 30% of those who start attending do so because someone they know asked them. That number could be higher, closer to 40%, assuming the 10.7% who say they were invited by a member did not also check the first response. Another 23% start attending because they could get to the building easily.
Now, look at the role of advertising. All forms, including internet websites, accounted for only 1.7% of those who began attending worship in one of our congregations. 
 Oh, and just for fun, look at the rates of response to clergy invitations-- just under 5%. 
So what do we learn from this?
Let me suggest at least four things.
1. As my colleague at GCFA puts it, the UMC does not have a marketing problem; we have a sales problem! By far, the most important and effective way both for informing others about your congregation and for others actually to show up is for you to talk about your congregation with people you know and then personally invite them to come. Talking about and inviting people you know to your congregation are at least 23 TIMES more effective than "cold calling" or advertising to generate a "first awareness" of your congregation. Personal invitations from laity are at least 6 TIMES more effective than clergy invitations, and at least 17 TIMES more effective than all forms of advertising (including Internet!). So-- Laity: Go tell your friends about your congregation and invite them!  Clergy: don't hesitate to invite, but be sure to help the laity remember each of their invitations is at least 6 TIMES more effective than yours!
2. Really a corollary of #1, but an important one. Constantly work at increasing the number of people you know! Build your social networks. I don't mean add more Facebook friends. I mean be diligent about getting to know more people in each place you find yourself during the week than you do now. Maybe even plan to start going to places you haven't gone before from time to time to begin to build relationships there.

Why do I say this? Some years ago, C. Kirk Hadaway and Penny Marler did some research on the "unchurched" that revealed that, for the most part, churched people know churched people and unchurched people know unchurched people. And the longer people are churched, the fewer unchurched people they know. Since we know from the US Congregational Life Survey just how important personal relationships are in moving people to attend the first time, it is essential that we be intentional about constantly increasing our social networks, especially to include unchurched people, else chances are good our social networks will contract and so will our church attendance!
3. Location and visibility of your building matter. A lot! Just over 18% get their first impression of your congregation from seeing your building, and nearly another 23% start attending because the location is convenient. You cannot count on this traffic if your building isn't where many people are or isn't easily visible by some means. Smart signage (and probably not "cute billboard sayings!") plus good outside appearance will make a difference. 
4. Realistically, the more effective audience for your advertising and internet presence may be your own congregation. This doesn't mean you don't communicate your events through advertising and stories in the media (including social media!). It also doesn't mean you don't invest in having a working website that doesn't look like it was created in 1996 (you know what I mean!). Of course you do advertising and get yourself an attractive website.  But it does mean that you should focus your energies and expectations about advertising and internet presence primarily on being effective and useful for your existing constituency, while also accessible (and attractively so!) for first time receivers of your ads or visitors to your sites.

The top two takeaways here are not rocket science. They're not even sophisticated sociology. And they don't require your congregation to hire a consultant to develop a "growth strategy." Go talk to people and make new friends. And make sure your building is visible and somewhere folks can easily find it. If you're doing these things, you're doing the most important things by far to increase the likelihood that you may see more first time visitors over time.

**The GCFA Office of Analysis & Research asked churches to distribute a survey questionnaire to each worshipper in the pews on April 26 or May 3, 2009.
Participating churches were randomly selected from a list of congregational leaders who indicated an interested in the project on their 2008 Congregational Leadership Survey.  Additional racial/ethnic churches were recruited with the help of several UM caucus leaders.  Nearly 200 churches registered to participate in the survey, with over 70% returning their completed materials. The
final data represents 141 churches with individual 8,622 worshippers.


La Peregrina said...

I don't think that the internet statistics will remain that low in coming decades. In seminary I visited a different church every week during my first year, and I found *all* of them through the internet.

But if this survey is of all current church folk and not just people who have joined in the last five years --- then that trend will take a while to register. Many church members stay in the same church for decades, and we've got to be careful that the survey results don't reflect "how people came to a church 50 years ago" instead of "how people come to a church today."

journeyman37 said...

I agree that more people are using the internet as a "screening" tool these days... no question. Still, even if you were to "scale up" that figure to account for folks who said they'd joined in the last five years, it remains tiny (just a tad over 1%) by comparison to personal invitation, visibility, and convenience of the location.

jen said...

Hmm, this is good data to encourage churches to reach out, but like La Peregrina, I had to do all my church hopping these past few years through Google Maps. I just searched my own address and hit "search nearby" for churches, then made a list. If a church didn't have an up-to-date website, I didn't even put it on my list.

I would have loved to have received an invitation (even from a stranger) but only got invited to church once (by a coworker who was also new to the area). I even work at a ministry in the Bible belt.

The biggest danger to the UMC in this (and churches in general) is the focus on numbers and growth. Stop trying to get people to come to you church. Instead, get people on fire for Jesus then tell them to go spread it everywhere they go. Equip them and teach them how to share the Gospel, not your church's "selling points," and your church will end up growing as a result of fulling the Great Commission.

It's not about ensuring the survival of our organization. It's about sharing the love of Jesus with the world as He taught us and called us to do.

journeyman37 said...


If I were brand new to a place and I were actually seeking a church, I'd do the same thing. And yes, I would likely also exclude, from the top, any church with a missing or poor website.

Why? Because I'd conclude this congregation doesn't care enough or have the resources to find ways to communicate effectively with their own members, much less with the rest of the world. This goes to what I think is a core congregational competence-- its capacity to be a reliable institutional player in its local community. If you can't communicate well, you can't be a reliable institutional player.

But after I'd done my "filtering" I'd then narrow down the list based on personal recommendations from people I know.

So while I might actually get a first impression about a congregation from its website, it would still come down to personal recommendations from people I trust that would get me in the door the first time.

When I was brand new to Nashville back in 2005, the first church I visited (and the one where I've more or less parked, now, when I'm in town over a weekend) was one personally recommended to me by a trusted colleague (Hoyt Hickman). He'd been talking it up for years before I ever arrived in Nashville. So I felt I already had some good things to anticipate there-- and was not disappointed.

And if I think about that experience, I didn't actually visit the church's website until after I'd visited the congregation the first time.

That congregation had a great "sales rep" in Hoyt Hickman!

I completely agree that the first thing we need to focus on as congregations is living the way of Jesus faithfully. No question. But even there, part of discipling people is finding ways to connect with them personally and connect them to the larger body of Christ where you are.

Marcy H. Nicholas said...

Those of us who are churched and are already "church-going" folks will indeed visit internet cites of churches, if we were looking for a church. And the comments here reflect exactly how the "churched" would seek out a new church. It's just that now instead of the newspaper, it's the internet. And the comments here also reflect the idea that if "I did it this way, others will probably do it the same way that I did." They also still reflect this resistance to personal invitation; this resistance that we must go out of our way to bring people to Christ; and it still reflects very traditional thinking--that people will somehow just discover a church and show up there on any given Sunday because that's what they did in the 50s and because that's what I do as one of the churched. It's difficult to get out of our own skin.

But what about those who are unchurched or dechurched? Do you really think that out of the blue, this cohort will one day just decide to search the internet for a church? I don't think so.

journeyman37 said...

Exactly right, Marcy. The vast majority of "nones" (the fastest growing religious group in the US, and close to 30% of the 18-34 population, according to Pew) are not seeking a church at all-- via Internet or any other means.

It makes the need to go invite people you know and get to know more people, especially people who aren't "churched," all the more vital-- and not just for institutional survival, but actually so that we create more possibilities for more people of all "tribes" to become disciples of Jesus.

ajscom said...

My wife was mostly unchurched before she visited the congregation through which we met. I don't think she knew anyone there, but it is possible she may have heard something about it. Primarily she came because it was in a location she knew well. Also, the friend who visited along with her had a loose connection with the denomination.

A few years ago we moved to another part of town and decided to reconsider where to attend. We visited six congregations, five near our home and one further away. The one further away I had heard about a long time ago and been wanting to visit. We may have made that our church home except it was too far for regular participation.

Of the remaining five, I knew people in four of the congregations, though most of the people were primarily acquaintances through my work as a denominational professional. The place we didn't know anyone at, we had driven by. That congregation had yet to change its sign regarding a new worship time, so we arrived near the end of the service. We did not return.

EmilyA said...

Taylor/Journeyman, May I share your comment with Hoyt? If he's in town, I should see him at one of the services on Saturday.

journeyman37 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
journeyman37 said...

Certainly, Emily.