What are Newcomers Longing for in a Church?
In their “U.S. Religious Landscape Study” conducted in 2014, The Pew Center discovered that roughly half of U.S. adults have looked for a new religious congregation at some point in their life, most commonly because they have moved. Only 11% said they left their previous congregation because of a disagreement with the clergy or other members of the congregation. They also learned that people look for a congregation where they like the preaching. In fact, 83% said that the quality of the preaching played a significant role in choosing a congregation. A similar number said that the welcome they received from clergy and lay leaders impacted their decision. 70% said that location was an important factor. A smaller number cited the quality of children’s programs or volunteer opportunities as important factors in their decision.
I don’t have hard data to back this up, only anecdotal evidence, but I am not sure that the above fully reflects the experience in my own congregation. Although I would be flattered to think that my sermons and the sermons of my associate on the staff are the most important factor, I would say the decisive factor is the overall welcome newcomers receive from both the people in the congregation and the God we proclaim. Both are key; one without the other wouldn’t be enough.
In a previous blog, I mentioned that we have had more people join St. Timothy’s in the last year than any of the previous 25 years that I have been the rector of this church. I bet that if I had all those people in a room discussing why they landed at St. Timothy’s, it would have to do with the combination of the divine and human welcome they received. If pressed, I think these newcomers would say that they were longing for a church that would welcome them “warts and all,” and longing for a church that proclaimed a God who really does love all humanity—no exceptions. Furthermore, I have a hunch that they would also say that they are looking forward to being part of a mission that is helping God make our local and global neighborhood a place where everyone is cherished and included.
Although the Pew poll doesn’t say this, at the end of the day I sense that most people in this country are lonely and longing for a deeper connection to God and other people. We have been raised in a society that turns people into commodities, is highly competitive, and values individualism. All of this makes people lonely. Is it any wonder that when people walk into a church one day and are welcomed as a beloved child of God that they want to come back?