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 U.S. 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 percent). The two biggest factors, by far, includedsomeone 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 percent. 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 percent 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 percent of those who start attending do so because someone they know asked them. That number could be higher, closer to 40 percent, assuming the 10.7 percent who say they were invited by a member did not also check the first response. Another 23 percent start attending because they could get to the building easily.
 Oh, and just for fun, look at the rates of response to clergy invitations-- just under 5 percent. 
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. 
2. Constantly work at increasing the number of people you know. Build your social networks. Be diligent about getting to know more people in each place you find yourself during the week than you do now. 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. 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 little more than 18 percent get their first impression of your congregation from seeing your building, and nearly another 23 percent 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). 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 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. 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.
Rev. Micheal L. Selleckis Director of Connectional Ministries for The North Georgia Conference. To contact him call 678-533-1442.