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The who, what, how and when of church hunting

Posted September 12

American adults are highly mobile, moving from state to state for work, marriage or to retire with an ocean view. This mobility affects their spiritual lives, forcing churchgoers to find a new place to worship and influencing how they choose it, according to a new Pew Research Center report on church hunting.

Half of U.S. adults (49 percent) have looked for a new house of worship at least once, and a geographic move is the most common reason for their search, the survey found. One-third of Americans (34 percent) said a geographic move led them to look for a new faith community, compared to 11 percent citing marriage or divorce.

Mobility is also part of the search itself, with nearly half of church hunters (48 percent) saying they would have been willing to switch religious denominations in order to find a faith community that fit their needs, Pew reported.

"Americans are extremely mobile when it comes to religion. They change religion a lot, whether from childhood to adulthood or during adulthood when they start emphasizing different parts of their faith," said John Green, a distinguished professor of political science at the University of Akron.

Pew's new report stems from the organization's U.S. Religious Landscape Study, a survey of 35,000 adults that launched in 2014. The church hunting research is predominately based on a recontact of 5,000 participants that took place from March 17 to May 6, 2015. The margin of error is 2 percent.

Although individual denominations and sociologists have studied church hunting before, Pew's report is the largest effort of its kind, noted Besheer Mohamed, a senior researcher at Pew. It provides a snapshot of a typical church search, including information about what factors make a faith community attractive to newcomers.

Here's the who, what, how and when of church hunting, according to Pew:

Who is hunting?

Although moving is the most common reason Americans search for a new faith community, some church hunters left their old house of worship due to conflict or dissatisfaction.

Eleven percent of U.S. adults have looked for a new church because of disagreements with clergy or church members, and an additional 7 percent cited other issues like dissatisfaction with their former church's beliefs or programming.

A search for a different church might also be inspired by a shift in personal beliefs, Pew reported. Five percent of U.S. adults say they needed a church change while they were exploring their spirituality or after a period of personal growth.

Church hunting was more common among evangelical and mainline Protestants than other groups, according to the report. Two-thirds of evangelical Protestants (67 percent) and 61 percent of mainline Protestants have looked for a new congregation, compared to 46 percent of historically black Protestants and 41 percent of Catholics.

What are they looking for?

Sermon quality and a sense of welcome are the most common influencers of a church hunter's search, Pew reported.

Around 8 in 10 U.S. adults who have looked for a new congregation said the quality of sermons (83 percent) and feeling welcomed by church leaders (79 percent) played an important role in their choice. Worship style (74 percent) and church location (70 percent) were also frequently cited.

Preferences varied little between faith groups, with the exception of Catholics. "For Catholics, location is more important than the quality of sermons," Mohamed said, noting it's likely because their faith groups use a geographically based system to sort members.

It's less common for people to prioritize children's programs (58 percent) or access to volunteering opportunities (42 percent), although they personalize their search based on which aspects of religious practice are most valuable to them.

For example, church hunters who were parents of minor children were more likely than others (65 percent vs. 58 percent) to focus on finding strong children's educational programming, researchers noted.

It shouldn't be surprising that people looking for a new congregation have high expectations for their house of worship, Green said, noting that Americans are generally picky people.

"American society as a whole is very individualistic. Individual choice is part of our cultural DNA," he noted.

However, the number of church hunters who were willing to switch denominations to find what they were looking for is still striking. "About half of both mainline (52 percent) and evangelical (47 percent) Protestants who have looked for a new church say they thought about changing denominations or religions during their search," Pew reported.

Their openness makes more sense when you consider that some searchers are balancing their own religious background with the needs of their spouse and that the average age of a congregation, the personalities of clergy members and varying levels of social justice activism lead to major differences within — and not just between — denominations, Green said.

How they searched

For many church hunters, and particularly for those who are denominationally flexible, the search can feel overwhelming at first. Should people who need a new faith community attend a new house of worship every weekend until one feels right, or can Google help them make a decision much sooner?

Mark Lackowski and his wife, Laura, had a few general preferences when they started searching near Notre Dame University, where Mark is pursuing a Ph.D. in theology. They wanted a smaller faith community that served communion each week and also focused on community service

"It was a matter of browsing the web and looking at church websites, and then visiting different places and trying them out," he said.

Their approach combined a few of the search tools cited in Pew's report, which showed that most church hunters value meaningful personal interactions more than general information when making their choice.

Among U.S. adults who have looked for a new congregation, 85 percent said they attended services at a church being considered, 69 percent talked to members of the congregation, 68 percent asked friends or colleagues about the congregation and 37 percent looked for information online, Pew reported.

Online searches are becoming more common, researchers noted. Nearly half of people who have church hunted in the last five years looked for information online, compared to 26 percent whose search was more than five years ago.

When they felt settled

Seven in 10 adults (71 percent) said their church hunt was very or somewhat easy, noting that factors like a convenient location and easy access to information about the congregation helped them identify the house of worship that was right for them, according to Pew.

In spite of having many options to choose from in a new community, church hunters tend to settle on a new congregation relatively quickly in order to stabilize their spiritual life, Green noted.

"When people first move to a new community, everything is changing. They have to find a new house, a new school for their kids, a new supermarket and a new dry cleaner. People tend to go to the first acceptable church," while acknowledging that they could switch again later, he said.

Although Lackowski and his wife spent more than six months trying to decide on a new faith community, their ultimate decision was easy to make. They visited a small Methodist church during the season of Lent and were immediately struck by the congregation's welcoming spirit and commitment to providing meals to community members.

"After the first service, people were already asking if we wanted to serve communion or read a scripture in the service or pass out this or that," Lackowski said. "It was very casual, kind of like, 'Here you are. You are welcome. Let's get started.'"

They'd found just what they were looking for, he added, noting "even before we said anything to each other in the car (after that first service) we both knew, 'Yeah. This is the place.'"

Email: kdallas@deseretnews.com Twitter: @kelsey_dallas

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