What Do People Look For in a New Church? (Suddenly Surging Part 3)

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(Part three of five in David Roseberry’s Suddenly Surging series on church growth.)

A friend once shared a valuable lesson she learned from a performance review at her previous job. Although her position was secure, her boss wanted to address a specific personality trait that he found bothersome. When given a task, she tended to overthink and overdo it. If asked to write a memo to a vendor, she would draft three versions for her boss to choose from. When tasked with calling a meeting, she would send three different messages via voice, text, and email, followed by a barrage of reminders just days before the event. In the review, her boss succinctly stated, “You make easy hard.”

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This feedback was a positive revelation for her; it was a relief. She could let go of her habit of overthinking, over-performing, and having an overdeveloped sense of responsibility.

It Isn’t Rocket Science

This anecdote resonates with me when I consider the process of recruiting, welcoming, and engaging new visitors to a church. We shouldn’t overcomplicate matters.

I’ll cite the report from the Pew Research Center later, but the list of the few simple things new visitors look for becomes quite obvious. Most of us would have the same list.

Here are the top three things people are looking for in a new church:

Good Music and Good Preaching

The quality of music and preaching is one of the crucial factors for new people. We can imagine that this is particularly important for those looking at Anglican congregations. Much of the liturgy is the same week by week. It doesn’t vary much at all. Only two things change from week to week: the music and the message.

It’s not rocket science; the church shouldn’t overthink this. Music is one of the most effective and transformational ways a church can inspire and capture people’s minds and hearts. And the preaching of the Word of God must be good. It doesn’t always need to be great (remember, Paul put a young man to sleep!). The church leadership needs to focus on and expect music that inspires and elevates and preaching that instructs and motivates.

In my experience, the preaching is almost less important to the visitor than the music. The visiting family will make allowances if the preacher is a bit off. They will imagine it was just an “off” day for the preacher. But if the music is bad—wrong notes, out of tune, slow and dirge-like—visitors assume it is always that way. Ugh. They probably won’t be back.

Music is the number one way a church positions itself to reach its community. Contemporary Christian music will reach a particular segment. Classical music and hymnody attract a certain kind of member. Country Western is a genre that will appeal to a specific group. Note the comment and suggestion below to consider these ideas.

A Place to Connect with New Friends

Again, this is not rocket science. The best metaphor for most congregations is a community or a family—and people always want to be a part of a community or a family.

One of the least discussed aspects of the Apostle Paul’s character is hiding in plain sight in the New Testament. From the first day of his conversion, when he was escorted into the city of Damascus and cared for in a private residence, to the last days of his life in a prison cell in Rome, the unobserved fact about Paul’s life is the vast number of friends he had. Some 70-plus different names are mentioned in his letters, making Paul the friendliest man in the Bible. Paul knew these people. He loved them. He sends his greetings, well-wishes, and personal updates throughout the early church in most of his letters.

Upon his conversion, Paul discovered that one of the main benefits of being a Christian was that, along with the friendship and love of the Living Lord Jesus and the assurance of eternal life, you had a widespread, welcoming community where people knew your name and provided the things in life that make it worth living: tenderness, prayer, caring, warmth, support, encouragement, and love.

Often, our churches do not see themselves as a friendship factory, but they could. Again, it is not rocket science. A church should do everything possible to facilitate friendships where people are known by their names.

To Meet and Greet the Church’s Leaders

People want to know leaders, including the pastor and the pastoral staff. Again, this is not rocket science. Visitors understand that the leadership team sets the shape and style of the church. Who are these people? Where do they come from? Can I know them? Can I relate to them? Will my daughter want to be married by one of them? Can the leaders be trusted with the financial life of the congregation?

In our polity, the church’s Rector and, by extension, the ministry staff of clergy and laypeople are the front door to the rest of the congregation. They are not gatekeepers. They are gate openers. Visitors at your church want to meet the team, not just the quarterback.

This was one of those “no-brainers” I discovered at Christ Church on or about the 24th year of doing New Members Orientation event several times a year. After almost 100 editions of the required class for new members, I made our Newcomers Class a command performance, as it were, for the staff. They had to be there. Up until then, the class had been a dog and pony show by yours truly. However, I redesigned the effort to include staff, wardens, music leaders, and volunteers. It went from good to great.

Following Jesus’ Priorities

These three things visitors seek in a new church are taken from a Pew Research Study published in 2016 on their website. It is a fascinating report you should read thoroughly. The headline summary is clear: When searching for a new congregation, Americans value the quality of sermons and feeling welcomed.” Then follows the style of services (which usually means music) and location. Only 56% of the respondents were looking for children’s programming.

This makes me think about Jesus’ ministry and priorities. Of course, he loved the children—that is obvious. But in terms of time spent, the Lord spent most of his time teaching adults and then playing with children. We seem to do just the opposite in the American church. We put massive amounts of time, classroom space, and volunteers into teaching children and spend only minimal efforts to teach and train adults to walk the Christian life.

A Few Suggestions

Before we end this section and turn to Part Four, let me offer a few suggestions or prompts to think about.

  • If new people entering the congregation are looking for good or great preaching and music, what kind of time, emphasis, and budget should we allocate to these ventures? Is the pastor regularly growing as a preacher and teacher? Is there feedback that would be helpful in their pursuit of excellence?
  • As mentioned above, music is the number one way a church positions itself in the community around it. Is your church intending to reach the audience that your music style suggests? Are you intentional? Is your music offering something your church members would proudly invite their friends to experience?
  • Can the pastoral staff allocate 10-15 hours a week to connecting with new people and visitors, helping them understand the church, how it might serve them, and how they can be a part of it? If not, why not? In most growing churches, the most crucial staff position and duty is helping visitors discover the church and how they can be a part of it.
  • If nothing else, strive to remove the friction from a comprehensive follow-up system for visitors, including personal contact from the pastor or a designated leader, a welcome packet, and an invitation to a church newcomers’ event or small group. Electronic messages—sending a new person a “Howdy” email—are deceptive. Pick up the phone, call, or lick a stamp, and send an actual letter.

If you want to know about providing for your visitors and what they need, read the article I wrote a few years ago, “The Good Shepherd Economy.”


Photo by shironosov from iStock.

Author

David Roseberry

David Roseberry leads the nonprofit ministry, LeaderWorks. He was the founding rector of Christ Church, Plano, Texas, and is the author of many books. He lives in Plano with his wife, Fran.

View more from David Roseberry

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