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Preaching and the church shopper

Preaching and the church shopper

Church shopping season will soon be upon us. How many people changes churches and why? And what are people looking for when they do look for a new spiritual home?

A new Pew survey takes a look.


“This is what people value in a congregation — a good message, a good homily that resonates with them and gives them guidance,” said Greg Smith, Pew’s associate director for religion research.

More than 4 in 5 people (83 percent) put preaching at the top of their checklist. Preaching was followed by clergy and lay leaders who make them feel welcome (79 percent) and an appealing style of service (74 percent).

And for those pastors, imams and rabbis who are wondering how a snazzy website factors into potential congregants’ searches, the survey reveals that in-person encounters carry much more weight.

“This may be because some of the factors people say they value the most in choosing a congregation — the quality of sermons, the style of services and a welcoming leadership — are difficult to assess over the phone or on a website,” the researchers concluded.

Why do people switch?

The most common reason given (34 percent) is because a congregant has moved. Far less frequently did respondents cite a theological reason or dissatisfaction with the house of worship they used to attend, or the clergy who led it.

About half of those searching for a new congregation (48 percent) considered switching denominations. But for two groups in particular — Catholics and members of historically black churches — switching is uncommon, with only a third reporting such a change as a consideration.

"When searching for a new congregation, Americans value quality of sermons and feeling welcomed." Graphic courtesy of Pew Research Center
“When searching for a new congregation, Americans value quality of sermons and feeling welcomed.” Graphic courtesy of Pew Research Center

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Elizabeth (Lizzie)

Oh…. P.S. …. the kids are in college now, and I have found a local church that has engaged a priest part time in a sharing arrangement with two other area congregations (that seems to be a popular model now), and it’s a nice church and he preaches a challenging and stimulating sermon, and I am feeling very optimistic!

Elizabeth (Lizzie)

Please follow the posted comment policy and use your first & last name when posting comments. – ed

I am a cradle Episcopalian who was very active in church for most of my life, and I have twice left churches (the same church, actually, with a period of years in between) due to major conflicts with the priest. Once it was because a priest whom I respected as an intellectual adult had written what I felt was an extremely unprofessional, inflammatory, and libelous letter which was printed in a national church magazine — it was the sort of thing one would expect of a lesser person, and I was shocked and disappointed.

The second time it was because the next priest — a man far from intellectual, and about my own age — literally called me into his office and lit into me with some sort of drivel about commitment to Jesus and a lecture about how he wanted to make sure that if a certain political issue came to a vote, that everyone in his flock “voted the right way.” I was appalled and disgusted, and we had young children at the time, and there was no way in heck that I was going to let that man have anything to do with their formation.

So those are the sorts of reasons for which I have left churches. 🙁

Ted Mollegen

When people move, they often look at the websites of the churches in their new neighborhoods. Therefore the home page should not have a photo of the building, but a photo of something that engages, such as a baptism. Put the church photo in the section on where we are.

Rod Gillis

Let me welcome you ladies and gentlemen
I would like to say hello
Are you ready for some entertainment?
Are you ready for a show?
Gonna rock gonna roll you
Get you dancing in the aisles
Jazz and a razzmatazz you
With a little bit of style
C’mon let me entertain you


Elizabeth Kaeton

Interesting response, Rod. I know that some mega churches feel like that when I’ve attended, but I don’t get that at all from this survey. Indeed, it resonates in a place of truth in me.

Now that I’m no longer rector anywhere but attend and supply and consult in search processes, I have become more deeply appreciative of the sermon and the way in which I am welcomed to the community. I am a hospice chaplain so time in worship and prayer are even more important to me than they ever were. Sometimes, I come to church with a heart that is very heavy, weighted down by the loss of my patients but made even heavier than what is going on in the world. If the preacher is consistently shallow or evasive of the power of gospel, if she consistently starts off with a joke or he simply strings together a bunch of quotes from other people; if the liturgy is sloppy and the music is not connected to the messages of scripture; if there’s no education or bible study and no evidence of service to the community – well, I’m not likely to return to that congregation.

For me, it’s not about being entertained, it’s about being inspired. It’s about being fed so I have the spiritual strength to return to the work God has given me to do.

Hope that clarification helps.

Rod Gillis

The allusion was to the notion of ego identity and the church “shopper”. I’m reminded of my dear departed granny who on occasion, after mass, would say, ” Father had a good talk this morning. You should have seen so and so squirm”.

But, to be fair, perhaps too much of wise guy quick retort on my part. I appreciate your rejoinder.

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