Few formerly churched adults have the desire to return to their previous church—a small 6 percent. This number reveals that if the majority of formerly churched adults do indeed return, they will be walking into unfamiliar territory—a new church with new faces.
Understanding the outlook of the formerly churched on this initial visit is important for a church to encourage this return.
Only 11 percent of formerly churched adults would be willing to identify themselves as a visitor when visiting a church for the first time. The clear majority, 63 percent, prefer to wait until at least the second visit to let anyone know they are visiting, and 26 percent desire to slip in and casually introduce themselves after the service.
The formerly churched represent approximately 7 percent of Americans. While they are currently outside the church, they’re still familiar with church. Despite this familiarity – or maybe because of it – they do not want to be identified as a visitor.
“Their perspective on visiting a church conflicts with many popular church practices,” said Scott McConnell, director of Lifeway Research. “Asking visitors to stand, a practice that is meant to be welcoming to visitors, may actually do more harm than good. Attending church is a big decision, and the formerly churched clearly want to be in the driver’s seat. The church can, and should, take proactive steps to create a welcoming environment, and respecting their desire to remain anonymous – at least initially – is a critical part of this.”
Formerly churched adults are easily disenchanted when church members are hypocritical-17 percent cite this as a reason they left their previous church. “Their desire for a welcoming church environment is not satisfied when members suddenly act nice as they learn someone is a visitor,” McConnell said. “It should come as no surprise that the formerly churched prefer to size up the church before they identify themselves as a visitor.”
Gary Glover, a member at Highlands Fellowship Church in Abingdon, Va., shared that their church knew a welcoming environment was critical from the beginning.
“Before [the pastor] started the church, he went out and did surveys of all the community,” Glover said. “He went around and asked, ‘why do you not go to church? What are the things you don’t like about church?'” He found one of the most prevalent things that turned people off from attending was when a church asked for visitors to stand.
Highlands Fellowship is very careful not to single out visitors. By putting people at ease, they provide a degree of comfort that makes people willing to come back – one factor in their phenomenal growth during the past 12 years.
The formerly churched adults in this study were limited to those whose religious preference is Protestant. If they resumed regular church attendance, 64 percent would prefer a church of the same denomination as the church they used to attend. Fifteen percent would opt for a different Protestant denomination, and 18 percent would prefer attending a non-denominational church.
Very few would prefer to move beyond the Protestant preference they indicated at the outset of the study. (Only 1 percent prefer a non-Protestant Christian denomination, and 2 percent prefer a non-Christian religious affiliation.) However, 30 percent would consider a non-Protestant Christian denomination and 17 percent would consider a non-Christian religious affiliation.
Methodology: Lifeway Research conducted this study online among a national sample of 469 formerly churched adults in August 2006. The formerly churched were defined as Protestant adults who currently attend church less than five times a year, but previously attended regularly (at least twice a month) as an adult.