Welcoming new people and helping them feel they belong

Most people think their congregation is warm and friendly, but perception and reality don’t always match. The average congregation in the U.S. Congregational Life Survey scored only 36 percent on the “Having a Sense of Belonging” index, which means that lots of folks who attend congregations don’t feel very much a part of things.

Congregations that scored higher on the “sense of belonging” scale are places where people are growing spiritually, and where they have an imaginative vision for the future. The sense of belonging is greatest in small congregations — often places where a new name and face is quickly noticed and appreciated.

Being warm and friendly helps integrate new people. And that is especially important given that many Americans move — from town to town and from congregation to congregation, too.

Go around the room when your congregation gathers, and have people tell their stories. You’ll find they come from all over — from other faiths, other denominations, from the big, diverse, secular world. Somehow they all end up in one place, sitting together, looking for God.

In the average congregation, about one-third of the worshipers are newcomers, people who’ve come there within the last five years, bringing with them new energy and new ideas, said Deborah Bruce, one of the researchers with the U.S. Congregational Life Survey. But some congregations do better than others in attracting new people — there’s considerable variation, with some congregations having only 16 percent new arrivals and others as many as half.

But seeing lots of new people doesn’t necessarily translate into numerical growth for a congregation. Especially in areas with high mobility, people might be leaving as fast as the new folks come in — the back door is as wide open as the front. “Some churches have a lot of people coming in, but they don’t stay there six months,” Bruce said.

New arrivals tend to be different from long–time worshipers. On average, they’re younger and better educated, less likely to be married, and more likely to be working, either full–time or part-time. They tend to be less involved in the congregation. Congregations need to be intentional about helping new people feel they belong and find ways to be involved so they’ll stay for the long term.

The new arrivals fall into four distinct groups. The biggest category is transfers — 39 percent have come from another congregation in the same denomination or faith tradition. Another three in 10 are switching from one denomination or faith tradition to another — from Baptist to Lutheran, for example, or Methodist to Catholic.

About a quarter — 23 percent — are returning to religious life. At one point, they were involved in a congregation, but not recently — before coming to this congregation — they weren’t attending worship anywhere. And finally, nearly 1 in 10, or 9 percent, are first–timers — they’ve had no involvement with organized religion at all.

When people do show up, they are hoping to find a place where they will feel welcome, at home. Congregations that do best at welcoming new people have several distinct strengths. For example, people in those places are more likely to invite new people to worship and to feel comfortable talking about their faith. They have a strong sense of the congregation’s future and show that they care for children and youth.

And, contrary to what some might think, not all the new people are showing up in megachurches. The total number of new people who go to large congregations is bigger than those going to small and mid-sized congregations. But the percentage of new people is about the same — so in percentage terms, large congregations are not doing significantly better in attracting new people than are smaller congregations.

There are some differences based on faith tradition. Conservative Protestant congregations have a better–than–average record of bringing in new people. In those churches, almost four in 10 of those at worship on the day the survey was taken were new in the past five years. Mainline Protestant churches have the best record of attracting returnees to the church. Conservative Protestant and historically black congregations do better than others with “switchers,” and Catholic parishes have more transfers. Overall, people are more likely to switch among Protestant denominations than to switch from Protestant to Catholic, or vice versa.

But no faith tradition is doing a stunning job of attracting those who have never been part of a faith tradition. For the most part, those people remain outside of organized religion, perhaps skeptically watching, perhaps ignoring congregations altogether and working things out on their own.