At some point in their lives, half of Americans have searched for a new church to attend.
A new survey from Pew Research examines the attitudes surrounding the move and come away with some very interesting findings. Here are five takeaways for Christians hoping to understand the current American religious environment.
We are consumers, more than congregants.
Perhaps without realizing it, the research exposes a deep seated issue within American Christianity. We are consumers chasing the best show in town.
When asked what factors played a role in their choosing their new church home, Americans overwhelmingly pointed to four main concerns: quality of the sermons (83%), feeling welcomed by the leaders (79%), style of worship (74%), and location (70%).
None of those in and of themselves are wrong reasons for choosing a church. You should attend a church where you are interested in the pastor’s sermons, feel at home, enjoy worship, and that is near where you live.
But looking at this and other research, you get the feeling that Americans view finding a new church home much more like a business transaction than a relational involvement.
They want the church with the best preacher, with the best worship, closest to their house that makes them feel welcomed when they decide to show up.
Other reasons, like volunteering opportunities (42%), are much further down the list. American Christians aren’t searching for a new place to invest their lives and serve others; they’re hunting for a favorite place to frequent before they go out to eat for Sunday lunch.
Denominational loyalty is gone.
Part of the reason why I believe the factors for choosing a new church are more negative than positive is that almost half of Americans (48%) looking for a new church don’t care about the denomination.
Yes, denominations are in decline, but they often serve as a shortcut for understanding the basic theological beliefs on a congregation. If I see a United Methodist church, I realize there will be differences between the individual congregations, but I can make some basic assumptions about the doctrinal beliefs.
As a Southern Baptist, each time our family has moved, we have limited our search to only Southern Baptist congregations—not because I believe only those churches were healthy and vital to the area, but because they will most likely line up my beliefs theologically.
Perhaps, a congregational move spurred deeper considerations to a person’s doctrine, but more than likely they had been attending a church and were unaware or vaguely aware of any denominational connection.
Again the important parts were the sermon, the worship, the location and feeling welcomed, none of that is directly related to doctrine. Someone can enjoy heretical sermons and worship songs.
Websites are important. Before choosing a new church, more than one third (37%) say they looked for information online. But personal interactions carry much more significance.
Almost 9 in 10 (85%) visited the church personally before deciding and clear majorities talked to members of the congregation (69%), talked to friends about the church (68%), and talked to a pastor at the church (55%).
In a digital age, we can lose sight of just how important interpersonal relationships remain. For many, they will choose and stay at a church only if they feel a personal connection.
Among young adults (18-29), they were most likely to search for information online (59%), but they were also the generation most likely to talk to members of the church (75%) and talk to friends about it (82%).
Most Americans still regularly attend church.
Despite all the doomsayers predicting the collapse of the church in the U.S., 51% of Americans still attend church regularly.
Not only that, but 27% say they attend church more regularly now than they did in the past. That’s as many as who say they have always attended rarely and more than those who say they have always attended regularly (23%) and those who say they attend less now (22%).
Evangelicals had the highest percentage of both the total percentage of those who attend church regularly (75%) and those regular attendees who say they attend more now (44%).
Of those who are attending more, half (49%) say their increased attendance is due to some type of change in their beliefs. One in 5 say they attend more now because they have become more religious.
For those attending less, half (50%) say it was due to some practical reason: 20% say it’s because they were too busy, 10% say personal priorities, 8% say practical difficulties.
Nones are still religiously complicated.
Half (49%) of the religiously unaffiliated who left a childhood faith say they left because they no longer believe. One in 5 say it’s because they simply dislike organized religion.
But that leaves 1 in 3 Nones who left religion who would seem to be still open to religion: almost 1 in 5 (18%) say they just aren’t sure and 10% say they are an inactive believer.
That’s a lot of irreligious individuals who are ostensibly open to attending church.