By the Numbers: Guests, Attendance and the Back Door

By the Numbers: Guests, Attendance and the Back Door

October 7, 2015 by

Given that the church’s primary responsibility is to make disciples, it’s super helpful to have a nice steady stream of people who aren’t already connected with a faith community—otherwise known as guests, which according to Building Church Leaders comprise 4-5% of our annual attendanceLike everything in the church, if we’re going to make the most of every opportunity (Colossians 4:5) it’s important to be intentional. Regarding guests, being intentional means thinking through the best ways to invite, interact, follow up and retain. It’s also important to know what’s keeping people in our churches—and why people are sneaking out the back door.

Gleaning from Lifeway Research, Gallup, Thom Ranier, Barna and others, we hope these statistics will help you do just that. (If you dig math, you’re gonna love this. If you hate math, well… you won’t. But it’s good stuff, so don’t stop reading!) And for real—if a pile of numbers like this makes you want to curl up in the fetal position, scroll to the end for a short list of key takeaways. (You’re welcome.)

Like everything in the church, if we’re going to make the most of every opportunity it’s important to be intentional.

Why Go, Anyway?

As we’re thinking about developing compelling church experiences and activities, knowing what draws people to a faith community in general may help you boost the number of guests you see. Following are the reasons Americans attend church.

Spiritual growth/guidance 23%
Keeps me grounded/inspired 20%
It’s my faith 15%
Fellowship of other members/community 13%
Belief in God/religion 12%
I was brought up that way/family value/tradition 12%

Gallup, April 2007

Choosing a Church

Wouldn’t it be helpful to know how formerly un-churched people choose their church? Voila! The first column of the following chart shows the percentage of people who indicated a particular reason for choosing their church. The second column shows the percentage of people who indicated that reason for staying at that church.

Pastor/preaching 90% 38%
Doctrine 88%
Friendliness of members 49% 49%
Someone at the church witnessed to me 41%
Family member 38%
Relationship other than family member 25%
Sensed God’s presence/atmosphere of the church 37%
Sunday school class* 25% 55%
Other groups/ministries 12% 62%
Worship style/music 11% 14%
Location 7%
Obedience to God 54%

*I don’t know about you guys, but I’m thinking we better bring back Sunday school. Also, it’s interesting to see how important the pastor/preaching is at the beginning… but over time, relationships (through Sunday school and other ministries) become far more important than they were at the start.

Thom Rainer, February 2008 

Regarding guests, being intentional means thinking through the best ways to invite, interact, follow up and retain.

23 Reasons People Leave a (or The) Church*

There are all sorts of reasons people stop attending a church, and some go on to a new faith community while others leave altogether. According to Building Church Leaders, we lose 5-8% of people through our back door every year. The most interesting statistic I found in this set? More than half of people who stopped attending church did so because of a change in life situation. What can we do differently in our faith communities so that people want to stick around—even in the midst of a life-changing event (either positive or negative)?

Need/desire to leave old church 58%
Need/desire to join new church 42%
Wasn’t developing spiritually 28% 14%
Didn’t feel engaged/involved in meaningful church work 20%
Church members were judgmental 18% 17%
Church members seemed hypocritical 15% 17%
God didn’t seem to be at work 14%
Church was run by a clique that discouraged involvement 14% 12%
Pastor wasn’t a good preacher 16%
Pastor was judgmental 14%
Pastor seemed hypocritical 13%
There were too many changes 16%
Change in life situation 21% 59%
Too busy to attend 19%
Family/home responsibilities prevented attendance 17%
Work situation 15%
Divorce/separation 12%
Stopped believing in organized religion 14%
Consider themselves spiritual but not religious 24%
Consider themselves a Christian, but not particularly devout 42%
Confess to being a devout Christian with a strong belief in God 19%
Wavering on Christianity 10%
Wavering on belief in God 9%

*These are people who switched/stopped for reasons other than a relocation.

Lifeway Research, March 2007; Lifeway Research, October 2006

What can we do differently so that people want to stick around—even in the midst of a life-changing event?

Church “Switchers”

Now let’s take a look at church “Switchers”—i.e. folks who were connected with a church and then for one reason or another headed to a different one.

First we’ll compare a few numbers in two categories of Switchers: people who left their previous church due to a relocation (Movers, which account for about 57% of switches) and people who left for other reasons (Non-movers).

  Movers Non-movers
Rely on recommendations to find a new church 60% 66%
Friend or acquaintance invited them 22% 37%
Used impersonal sources (web, phone book, ads) to find a new church* 84% 42%
Denomination was important in choosing a new church 60% 44%
Stayed in the same denomination upon switching 66% 46%
Location was important factor in choosing new church 61% 43%
Chose worship service as their first event/activity to attend 94% 84%

*There are services that can provide you with information about individuals and families who’ve recently moved to your community. Snag that list and send ‘em an invitation!

Lifeway, March 2007

Surprise, surprise: Most people check out a church because they were invited.

Following are some factors that are important to Switchers as they look for a new faith community. These numbers include both Movers and Non-movers.

Beliefs/doctrine 89%
Worship style 80%
Music 69%
Care for community 76%
Evidence of God’s work/changed lives 74%
Church members with whom to build relationships 73%
Unity among church members 71%
Opportunities to learn biblical truth 70%
Denomination 50%
Location 49%
Worship times 47%
Church size 31%

Lifeway, March 2007

It may also be helpful to know how church Switchers find out about their new church, how they first got involved and what factors positively influenced their decision to attend regularly.

Invite from friend or acquaintance 32%
Word of mouth or existing familiarity 27%
Driving by 25%
Recommendations from family/friends 64%
Websites 21%
Advertisements 19%
First Experience
Attended worship first 88%
Attended Bible study first 4%
Attended musical event first 3%
Attended a social event first 1%
Decided to attend regularly based on one visit 16%
Visited at least four times before decided to attend regularly 46%
Factors Influencing Decision to Stick Around
Church’s approach to welcoming them 66%
Being greeted by a congregant 82%
Being personally greeted by the pastor or other minister 84%
Completing an information card 75%
Being formally recognized in the service 80%

Lifeway, March 2007

OK, there are a few important notes to make about this information:

  • Surprise, surprise: Most people check out a church because they were invited. Want more guests? Teach your church family how to invite people, and equip them with the tools to do so.
  • This data isn’t completely out of date, but technology has developed at break-neck speed since 2007. Our best guess is that websites are now much more significant in finding a new church.
  • If you’re having concerts in the hopes they’ll attract new people to your church, you might want to take notice of that little 3% there…
  • Develop a follow-up strategy for your guests. If it takes 46% of people four visits to make a decision, what can you do to help them with that?
  • We all think our churches are super-friendly. But are they really? If 82% of guests say that being greeted by someone in the faith community is important, we better make sure our folks are saying, “Good morning!”
  • Does your pastor(s) hang out before or after worship gatherings to greet people? They probably should.
  • Who knew that our “information cards” were so important in people’s decision to attend our church?! Do you have one?
  • We were quite surprised that 80% of people were positively influenced by being formally recognized in the service. Keep in mind that these stats are for church Switchers not un-churched folks. That likely makes a big difference.

A major factor in deciding on a church is the pastor. But they stick around for relationships.

Re-engaging the Formerly Churched

Finally, let’s have a look at some stats that will help us know how to more effectively turn formerly churched people into guests—and then hopefully, regular participants. The good news is a majority of them are open to coming back, but they may just need a bit of time and space to get there. And take a look at that last item: More than one-third of formerly churched people would consider coming back if they thought they’d fit in! In what ways could that information impact your social media presence, direct mail pieces and engagement in the community?

Open to the idea of attending church regularly again 66%
Would consider returning “to fill a gap felt since I left” 34%
Would consider returning “to bring me closer to God” 46%
Would consider returning to be around people with similar values 32%
Would consider returning to make friends 31%
Would consider returning to make a difference/help others 30%
Would consider returning “if I simply felt it was time” 58%
Would consider returning “if I felt God calling me to visit” 31%
Would respond to an invite from a friend or acquaintance 41%
Would respond to an invite from their children 25%
Would respond to an invite from any adult family member 25%
Would be inspired to attend “if I knew there were people like me there” 35%

Lifeway Research, October 2006

More than one-third of formerly churched people would consider coming back if they thought they’d fit in.

Takeaways and Possible Action Steps

When it comes to inviting guests, welcoming them, following up with them and compelling them to stick around, certain factors are completely beyond our control (e.g., a move). But there are plenty of opportunities for us to help people get connected—and stay that way. Following are some takeaways, observations and questions:

  1. Spirituality: It appears most people choose a church and attend it—at least initially—for God-related reasons: spiritual growth, preaching, doctrine, beliefs. Interestingly, the churches I’ve served have reserved (at my direction) marketing dollars for more “felt-need” message series: love and marriage, dealing with anxiety, busyness and so on. With this data, I have to wonder if it might be wise to shift some of those resources toward more “churchy” series and events.
  2. Welcoming: Across all the data, the people at the church have a significant influence on a guest’s interest in continuing to engage with that community. Are your folks actually friendly? Is there an axis of power that needs to be shaken up so the appearance of a closed circle goes away (e.g., “launch team members”)?
  3. Competition: Nearly one-fifth of people stop attending church because they’re too busy or they have a work situation or home responsibilities that prevent their attendance. To me that indicates that involvement in a faith community continues to slide toward the bottom of people’s priority list. How can we do a better job of “competing” with all of those outside demands? Are we offering truly meaningful experiences that could actually inform their work and home lives?
  4. Relationships: When folks are choosing a church for the first time, a major factor in their decision is the pastor and their preaching. But why do they stick around? For relationships. Do we offer adequate encouragement and opportunities for guests to make connections with other people?
  5. Invites: There’s really no way to get around it: Most people decide to check out a church because someone they know invited them. Is your church family any good at that? Are you giving them tools to do so? Are there barriers that prevent your current church folks from inviting their friends (e.g., messages are too long or too heady, no children’s ministry, rude parking attendants and so on)?

The bottom line: Our churches won’t grow—we won’t be able to fulfill the great commission—if we don’t have guests who decide to stick around. So how can we be sticky?


Unwelcome Now Available

Photo by Stephen Murray.
Post By:

Kelley Hartnett

Kelley Hartnett spent more than a decade working in established churches and helping to launch new ones. She recently launched Tall Tree Collective, which helps nonprofits craft messages that inspire people to get behind their cause. Kelley formerly served as the membership director for our Courageous Storytellers Membership Site and is the author of You've Got This: A Pep Talk for Church Communicators.
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One Response to “By the Numbers: Guests, Attendance and the Back Door”

  • Eric
    October 21, 2015

    Thanks for pulling all these stats together – what a great list and analysis!

    I wish we had more routine research into these issues. I have looked for stats about the Christian body, too, and have had a hard time finding anything current.

    With regards to the issue about people leaving the church because of significant life change… I suggest that the extension of “church” throughout the rest of the week may be an ideal place to focus. The community of the church body can be the conduit for “sharing life together” within which Sunday service is simply one piece of much deeper interpersonal relationships.

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