Lifeway Research finds more than two-thirds of formerly churched adults are open to the idea of attending church regularly again.
In the summer of 2006, Lifeway Research conducted a survey of 469 formerly churched adults to better understand why people stop attending church and what it would take to bring them back. The “formerly churched” are defined as those who regularly attended a Protestant church as an adult in the past but who no longer do so.
“We were delighted to see such a large percentage of the formerly churched willing to consider church again in the future,” said Scott McConnell, director of Lifeway Research. “This was particularly surprising because the average formerly churched adult has not attended regularly for 14 years.”
Four percent of formerly churched adults are actively looking for a church to attend regularly (other than their previous church). Six percent would prefer to resume attending regularly in the same church they had attended. The largest group, 62 percent, is not actively looking, but is open to the idea of attending church regularly again.
McConnell noted that such openness may reflect a cultural Christianity rather than genuine interest, but the fact remains that the majority are not closed to the idea. “The small portion who are ‘unlikely to consider’ returning (28 percent) should be encouraging when you think about the three out of four who are willing to give it another try” said McConnell.
Motivation to return
For some, the openness to returning is a real yearning for what they once had at church. More than a third are motivated to consider returning “to fill a gap felt since stopping regular church attendance” (34 percent). Despite multiple reasons for leaving that often include their own life changes as well as disappointing actions or inaction of the church, a number of the formerly churched miss the benefits of attending church.
The most common motivation of those who would consider returning comes straight from the soul: “to bring me closer to God” (46 percent). Not surprisingly, this desire for an improved relationship with God is expressed primarily by those who still consider themselves Christian.
“Many members are vulnerable to attrition because of either a nonexistent or immature faith,” said Brad Waggoner, executive vice president of Lifeway. “When individuals begin to seek out membership, they should be guided through a process whereby they are clearly taught the gospel and then following salvation, grounded in strong biblical truth. Far fewer people would drop out of church if their spiritual foundation was deep and strong. The church must also be sensitive to this combination of a less developed but genuine desire for faith as they approach the formerly churched about returning.”
Building relationships in a Christian community is another strong motivator to return to church. Thirty-two percent of those surveyed want to “be around those with similar values” and 31 percent would consider returning “to make friends.” Finally, a similar number would return “to make a difference/help others” (30 percent) in their community. “Too often churches wait for people to be spiritually mature to engage them in service when many projects or tasks are ideal entry or reentry points for people on their faith journey,” said McConnell.
Taking steps to bring them back
“One of the many biblical metaphors of church leadership is that of the shepherd,” said Waggoner. “Throughout Scripture we see that the shepherd was to protect, guide and care for the flock and to go after those who have strayed from the fold. These findings indicate that churches should seek out those who have lapsed as well as taking steps to reduce further departures by meeting members’ needs for a welcoming and spiritually fulfilling church environment.”
Waggoner noted that prompting the formerly churched to visit a church with an eye toward attending regularly requires some work. Most of these individuals had multiple reasons for leaving. Not surprisingly, the work of the Holy Spirit along with the efforts of church members, friends and family members is needed to light a fire under them, Waggoner said.
Some of the statements of those surveyed were very subjective related to why and when they would return to church. More than half would be inspired to regularly attend church “if I simply felt it was time to return to church” (58 percent), and nearly a third said “if I felt God was calling me to visit a church” (31 percent).
“Clearly we can encourage Christians to pray that the unchurched would sense God calling them back, but God works through His people,” said McConnell. “The survey showed that many would respond to an invitation from a friend or acquaintance (41 percent), their children (25 percent) or an adult family member (25 percent).”
The issue of affinity also surfaced in the responses. Thirty-five percent indicated that they would be inspired to attend church “if I knew there were people like me there.”
“Affinity will never happen at a significant level without the church fostering a culture of concern, fellowship and involvement,” said Waggoner. “The openness of the majority of the formerly churched to rejoin the flock is reason enough for the church to seek them out. That means having an effective outreach strategy for identifying, praying for and contacting formerly churched adults to shepherd them back to the fold.”