bits from bob....

How Do People Choose Churches Today?

by Robert J. Young
[permission is given to reprint with credit noted]

A Barna report from fall 2005 was titled, "Americans Describe Their Ideal Church." The changing religious scene Barna surveys is a reality for churches desiring to reach out with effective ministries to their communities. As John Douglas Hall pointed out in Thinking the Faith, historically, until the last quarter century or so, most Americans have attended the church of their parents. Hall says such faith was not "thought" but inherited. In many religious groups, one is designated a member even before faith can develop. This process means that previously any choice of churches was virtually arranged for most people at birth. People went to the church of their parents which was the same church their grandparents had attended. Church shopping was unknown.

Continuing the description of the religious processes of the past, one changed churches when one moved, when the church went through a split or when you entered a "mixed marriage" - meaning people from two different churches married and had to choose to attend one or the other or one entirely different. Things have changed. Church (denominational) loyalty is at an all-time low. According to the Barna report, more than one out of seven adults change their church affiliation each year, and another one out of six attend a carefully chosen handful of selected churches on a rotating basis rather than sticking with the same church week after week. The report continues, Americans are religious people and church remains an important aspect of life for tens of millions of people. However, there is less concern about religious "brand loyalty" than there used to be.

The survey was conducted by the Barna Research Group among a national random sample of U.S. adults. Those who attend a Christian church were asked what qualities they would prioritize if they moved to a different community and were seeking a church to attend. Nine factors were significant--13 others included in the survey were not seen as significant. One should note that these are the factors important to churched people, and that the survey did not inquire of unchurched people concerning their desires.

What Really Matters?
The three most significant factors (labeled "extremely important" by a majority of respondents) were (1) the beliefs and doctrine of the church, (2) how much the people in the church seem to care about each other, and (3) the quality of the sermons. Three additional high priority items were (4) friendliness to visitors, (5) involvement in serving the poor and disadvantaged, and (6) the quality of programs and classes for children.

Three additional factors were significant: (7) how much the person liked the pastor, (8) the denominational affiliation of the church, and (9) the quality of the adult Sunday school classes encompassed the middle ground. Given the emphasis of some contemporary churches, it is interesting to note that factors considered unimportant by most included worship music, convenience, comfort, and small groups.

Different Strokes
A strength of the Barna research model is the ability to determine the responses of different demographic groups. Women considered the quality of sermons, the type of worship music and the quality of programs for children to be more important than men did. Baby Busters were comparatively less interested in the quality of adult Sunday school and in the quality of the music in worship services. Baby Boomers were less concerned about helping the disadvantaged, the convenience of the service times, the quality of music, and the ease of parking. Builders, those in their fifties and sixties, emerged as the most concerned about a church's theology and doctrine, the type of music used in the worship services, and the importance of having good friends at the church. Those who had not attended college were more interested than were college graduates in items such as the quality of children's programs, the type and quality of worship music, the quality of he adult Sunday school program, and the various convenience factors such as meeting times and parking. College graduates were notably less concerned about matters such as how much the people seem to care for each other and the quality of the sermons preached.

Single adults attached much greater importance to factors such as the type of music in the worship services, the amount of music used and the ease of parking. Unmarried adults were less tuned in to the theological beliefs and doctrine of the church and to how much the people in the church cared about each other than were married adults. Denominational distinctions were substantial. Catholics were much less concerned than were Protestants about theology and doctrine, how much the congregants care about each other, friendliness toward visitors, the quality of the sermons and the quality of adult Christian education. Catholics were more concerned than were Protestants about the length of the sermons, the convenience of service times and the denominational affiliation of the church (i.e. whether it is Catholic or not). Baptists, when compared to all other churchgoers, assigned relatively greater importance to six factors. Those were how much the people care about each other; how friendly the church is to visitors; involvement in helping the disadvantaged; the quality of the sermons; the quality of the adult Sunday school; and the quality of the programs for children. People attending mainline Protestant churches--i.e. Episcopal, United Church of Christ, Evangelical Lutheran, United Methodist and Presbyterian Church U.S.A. - rated three factors to be of much lower importance than did other adults. Those factors were helping the disadvantaged, how far the church is located from their home, and the convenience of the times of the services.

Adults who associate with a Protestant church not part of the mainline group placed a higher priority on six factors than did other adults. Those factors were the theological beliefs and doctrines of the church; how much the people care about each other; how friendly they are to visitors; involvement in helping the disadvantaged; the quality of the sermons preached; and the quality of the adult Sunday school. These churches include a large number of the evangelical churches. The distinctions may be misleading, though, according to George Barna, the president of the research firm that conducted the study. "The most fundamental differences are those between Protestants and Catholics regarding doctrine and practice. Apart from that, however, the big story is that people are people. They want substance from their church; they want to make a difference in the world through their church; and they need to feel connected to God and to other God-loving people as a result of their church experience. If those factors are in place, people will put up with a lot just so they can have these primary spiritual needs met. If a church does not satisfy these particular needs, people will feel spiritually unfulfilled and restless and probably search elsewhere for a church home."

The entire report is available at

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Last updated November 1, 2005.