The American big church movement is growing. While churches in the majority are small, the top one percent of churches claims fifteen percent of church memberships, money and full time staff. The Top twenty percent claims sixty to sixty five percent(1). As large churches take a larger and larger share of the market, smaller churches struggle to keep their doors open. In this essay I will explore some factors which allow successful churches to attract new members and retain existing members to grow exponentially in a saturated and declining religious marketplace, and offer some suggestions for church leaders wanting to stimulate growth in their congregations. The main influences to church growth are church friendliness, counter cultural doctrines, service style and marketing.
Olson lists friendliness and a feeling of being wanted or needed as two of the top three reasons given by congregation members for joining their current church. In a selection of Methodist congregations, the most common reason for joining was a feeling of being accepted, loved and wanted, and the most common reason for leaving was feeling unaccepted, and unwanted (2). Religion performs an important function in providing people in a new geographical environment with a means of developing a social network quickly (3). The desire to satisfy social needs is at least as strong a motivating force in new conversions as doctrines or specific gospel interpretation; groups that surround prospective members with warmth, love and acceptance will attract more new members (2). Strong friendships are also important in retaining existing members(5), particularly those who may be dissatisfied in other areas(2). Friendships require an investment of time to maintain(6), so congregations where most members already have as many church friends as they want or are able to maintain are difficult for new members to find a place and will appear cliquish (2). Cliquish churches will retain existing members but will struggle to attract new members.
To put it simply, retention will be high if the average number of friends per person is high; recruitment will be high if the average number of additional friends desired per person is high (2). Small group ministry teams, special interest groups and weekly Bible study groups can help strengthen ties between members(5). Creating a church culture where members shower affection on new visitors will increase recruitment rates, though it must be possible to follow that up with at least some genuine friendships which last more than a few visits. Most people can manage five close friendships, fifteen good friends, fifty friends, and so on in stages out to distant acquaintances and people who look a bit familiar(6). Since the potential for close friendship is such a crucial element of attracting new members to a church, leaders who want their congregations to grow may increase their congregation’s friendship resources by encouraging members to limit their close friendships to people within the congregation. This has the added advantage of increasing member loyalty, as people will shift their identity to a group identity when their attachments within the group outweigh their attachments outside of the group(4).
Congregations often grow to and then plateau at the size which their members can maintain face-to-face relationships with the other members of the congregation (2) the majority of church friendships develop in special interest groups and small group activities(2). It is therefore important that as well as facilitating social interaction during or after services involving the whole congregation, a growing church should also provide a range of church programs for its members. Church sports teams, community works projects and choirs are an expensive option. Weekly Bible study groups in member’s homes on the other hand can be almost resource neutral and provide a similar effect.
Church doctrine will also have a significant effect on member commitment, specifically in regard to strictness and perceived difference from secular society. Conservative doctrines like those of Evangelicals and Fundamentalists provide definite answers to universal questions and appeal to the human need for uncertainty avoidance(7). Liberal doctrines reduce the apparent tension between the congregation and secular society. While this reduces the social cost of membership, it also reduces the rewards of exclusivity and difference, providing little incentive to attract new members (5). The religious free market does not reward academic humility(9). By either attempting to create an internally consistent belief system or acknowledging uncertainty in the search for truth, liberal scholars have undermined the mainstream denominations ability to make exclusive claims to knowledge of ultimate reality(9). An emotional message will have a greater effect on an audience than an intellectual one. Church leaders who want to compete in the religious free market must be prepared to allow emotional appeals and highly simplified slogans a greater voice than complex theology(10).
Conservative churches also provide a level of strictness which offers distinctiveness and meaningfulness generating greater commitment(11). The high cost of membership also screens out potential freeloaders who dilute the quality of religious product (5). The result is that conservative churches have an internally perceived tension between their members and secular society which leads to increased loyalty and commitment, and subsequently a higher rate of donation of time and money(5; 12). Churches with a high level of surplus money and volunteer time are able to offer a more extensive range of programs for their members and also pay for a range of promotional activities which can attract new visitors(5).
Service Style and Content
Every time Christian revival has occurred in America, it has been efficiently organised, advertised and planned(3). High satisfaction with various aspects of service style, including music and preaching are a strong predictor of the likelihood of an individual’s desire to participate in a church community, leading to satisfaction and a desire to share their beliefs with friends and family(4; 2) potentially leading to an increase in visitors. While God may move in mysteries, the elements of a church service which recruit and retain congregation members can be measured and analysed for optimum efficiency.
The very earliest religions existed to create social cohesion. They were purely experiential with no theology(6). While religions have developed a lot of complexities since their animistic origins, human nature hasn’t changed all that much. Sermons with an emotional message ranging from prosperity to hellfire, delivered in a stimulating way, will provide a higher degree of member satisfaction than an intellectual or complex theological message(9). Regarding style, excitement and laughter both produce an endorphin release in audience members, which lead to increased social bonding and the friendship effects described earlier, as well as adding to member satisfaction (6). Emotive music and lighting, dancing, singing, cheering and other endorphin stimulating activities will all assist in developing social cohesion and commitment within a congregation(6; 9).A successful church will provide what the market wants, not what works best or costs least, or even what they might actually need(7).
Churches with a surplus of volunteer time and donated money are very likely to have an extensive range of programs but use relatively few resources on marketing. Church programs, such as a junior sports club or choir, may assist in member retention, but do not show a significant effect on church growth overall. Effective church marketing on the other hand, shows a strong correlation with overall church growth(5). There are many different denominations and congregations competing for membership resources; a church that needs to increase its market share should therefore put the majority of its surplus resources, after the costs of putting on a stimulating weekly service and small group gathering to develop friendships, toward marketing itself in the community (10; 8). Marketing a church isn’t simply a case of proving the community with an address and description of the service. The modern needs based marketing approach, developed from the suffering and salvation teachings of St Augustine, suggests framing the tangible product (attending this particular church) as satiating an emotional need (status, approval, novelty, vitality, embarrassment avoidance, etc) in a way that no other product can(7). It is important to focus on the specific needs of the target market. A church located in a newly developed suburb might advertise itself as a place to meet new friends, while a church in the heart of the city could offer status and networking opportunities for business executives with an exclusive business lounge.
The observations of these major factors which contribute to church growth may assist church leaders who wish to stimulate growth in their congregations. While some variables, such as denomination, may appear outside of what an existing church can change for the sake of attracting new members, it is still possible to use this information to alter the way an existing message is delivered. An older congregation may not be interested in loud music and dancing, but adding a few jokes during the service and a member catered morning tea at the end could provide similar internal benefits. Any church that focuses on creating a friendly atmosphere, preaches definite answers to universal questions, emphasises the differences between members and non-members, provides emotive services and utilises persuasive needs driven marketing is likely to experience the growth necessary to spread its core message. If that message is important, then it is worth the effort.
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13. Passing the Plate in Affluent Churches: Why Some Members Give More that Others. Davidson, JD & Pyle, RE. s.l. : Religious Research Association, 1994, Review of Religious Research, Vol. 36.