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

By Taylor Burton-Edwards

"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?

worship-planning-what-brings-people-to-church-1Look 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?

worship-planning-what-brings-people-to-church-2It'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.