Choosing a Church – New Research

photo by Greg Smith

photo by Greg Smith

Yesterday, the Pew Research Center released a report titled “Choosing a New Church or House of Worship: Americans Look for Good Sermons, Warm Welcome.” (I encourage you to read the full report or the associated detailed article about the findings.)

It’s Personal

This new report is incredibly valuable to me for both professional and personal reasons.  Professionally, I have served eight Mainline Protestant congregations in a variety of roles.  Personally, my wife and I have been searching for a church for nearly a year. I have detailed those experiences on my blog, most notably through a series titled “Search for the Church” (Under Construction, Taking Recommendations, My 2016 SearchThe Final Four, and another titled View from the Pew (8 Sacred Spaces8 New Sacred Spaces, and 12 Sacred Spaces).

Why Search for a Church?

My wife and I moved from Florida to Texas.  That move led us to begin a search for a new church.  It turns out this rationale places us in the largest group of searchers: roughly a third of all U.S. adults have started searching following a move. Other top reasons for seeking a new church include getting married or divorced (11%) and a disagreement with their prior congregation (11%).

The Search Process

After visiting more than 30 churches, my wife and I have narrowed our options down to four potential choices.  All of the congregations we visited are affiliated with Mainline Protestant denominations.

Since our search was within the Mainline, I will consider the statistics for that group rather than all respondents.   Among Mainline Protestants looking for a new church or house of worship their search activities included:

  • 89% attended worship
  • 72% talked to friends or colleagues
  • 71% talked to members of the congregation
  • 56% talked to the minister or clergyperson
  • 36% looked for information online
  • 17% made a phone call to a house of worship.

In our search, we have attended at least one service of worship in all 30 congregations, and I viewed the websites for all 30.  Over the months of our search we have had many conversations with friends and colleagues. While visiting a given congregation, if the worship experience and overall mission and vision of the congregation feels at all like it may be a fit, then we have lingered after worship to chat with members of the congregation and, when possible, the minister.

Easy Decision

While most families do not visit two dozen or more churches before deciding to commit to one, many do evaluate multiple congregations.  Even with the need for multiple visits more than two-thirds of Mainline Protestants (68%) considered it very or somewhat easy to choose a church while only a third found it very or somewhat difficult (31%).  Given the length of our search to date with no choice made, I would rate our experience in the minority: somewhat to very difficult.

Contributing Factors

Among Mainline Protestants looking for a new church or house of worship several factors were significant in the decision making process:

  • 87% quality sermons
  • 86% feeling welcomed by leaders
  • 78% style of worship services
  • 76% location
  • 54% religious education for kids
  • 53% having friends/family in the congregation
  • 40% volunteering opportunities
  • 26% other factors

While my wife and I agree that each of the factors listed is important, I would rank them in a different order.  From the greatest weight in our selection algorithm to the least:

  • quality sermons
  • other factors: progressive theology
  • location
  • volunteering opportunities
  • feeling welcomed by leaders
  • style of worship services
  • religious education for kids
  • having friends/family in the congregation

So What?

I am encouraged that most who seek a new congregation find one, and most who find one find it somewhat or very easily (72% of all who are affiliated with a Christian tradition or denomination).  Interestingly, those looking for a new congregation are almost evenly divided between those who are looking only in one specific denomination with which they already identify (49%) and those who are open to switching denominations or even religions (48%).

As a post-denominational follower of the Way of Jesus, I am not concerned with denominational affiliation (a reason I have served congregations affiliated with five denominations while earning theological degrees from schools representing three additional denominations or traditions).

I am thankful for the research, and hopeful that my family will complete our search for a church before 2016 ends.

  • When did you last search for a church? How did your experience compare to mine? to the data from the Pew report?
  • What is one lesson you have learned from this data that you can use personally or to help your church be more effective in attracting and retaining newcomers?


  1. Greg Smith Sr. says:

    Greg I think your findings are true and accurate. I pray you and Susan will find a Church soon.

    Love- Dad

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