Americans evaluate churches based on their friendliness, children’s programs, worship music, sermons and pastors, according to the February Evangelical Leaders Survey. U.S. evangelical leaders were asked to list three criteria that Americans prioritize when choosing a church. While there was a variety of answers, 80 percent of the responses fell into the categories of friendliness (19 percent), children’s programs (19 percent), worship music (16 percent), sermons (14 percent) and pastors (12 percent).
Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), said, “The question asks why people choose a church. The answer is that there is no one answer. People choose churches for very different reasons. There are even differences in the most common answers — friendliness, children’s programs and worship music come in wide varieties.”
Pastors and church leadership teams who hope to reach their communities consider this question with regularity. One such pastor is William Bohline, lead pastor of Hosanna! Lutheran Church in Lakeville, Minnesota. “We are trying to pay more and more attention to our ‘connectivity’ or ‘stickiness.’ Many people come through our doors. What does it take for them to return? We invest much time and resources on our messages and music, with newer focus on welcome and warmth,” he said.
Greg Johnson, president of Standing Together, said, “People are consumers — like it or not —without a friendly, attractive and energetic first impression, they will usually not return for a second impression.”
Carmen Fowler LaBerge, president of the Presbyterian Lay Committee, lamented the consumer orientation. “The answers I would like to give are: accurate interpretation of the Scriptures by the preacher and teachers, spiritual vitality and authenticity of the members, and an outwardly focused missional passion that lost people would experience Jesus through encounters with the people of this particular church. But alas, that is the not the world I currently observe,” she said.
Anderson said, “While it may be good to pay attention to lists of what draws people to churches, the large lessons for churches is that they must have multiple attractions for different newcomers and that no one church is going to be attractive to everyone.”
In their comments, many evangelical leaders noted that people’s priorities in churches change as they enter different stages in their lives and faith. Joseph Tkach, president of Grace Communion International, said, “The choice of which church to attend has a basis in the needs of the family. If there are children, then such programs are in the top three. If a person is single, he or she will look at how many singles are in attendance. In all cases, the pastor and the church service are primary in consideration.”
Other criteria people look for in choosing a church include its community outreach, demographic makeup (that the church includes people that are like them), location, vibrancy, quality of programming, theology and denominational affiliation, according to evangelical leaders.
Several leaders noted that denominational affiliation is becoming less of a priority for many people. Kevin McBride, pastor of Raymond Baptist Church in Raymond, New Hampshire, said, “The denomination affiliation is more a generational concern at this point. People want to see you care about them, their families and the community, and then they will listen to what you believe.”
Anderson said, “Since no single church can meet every need, the good news is that we have hundreds of thousands of churches in America to meet lots of needs.”
The Evangelical Leaders Survey is a monthly poll of the Board of Directors of the National Association of Evangelicals. They include the CEOs of denominations and representatives of a broad array of evangelical organizations including missions, universities, publishers and churches.