Religion in Society

Churches Compete With Bars, Internet as Places to Meet New Friends

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LOVELAND, Colo. --- Pastors take note: Americans believe they make more new friends in sports bars and restaurants rather than your churches, and watch out, you also have competition from online social media.

A survey of nearly 800 respondents, of whom more than three-quarters identified themselves as Christians, reveals that only 16 percent believe their church is "their favorite place to meet new friends."

"Our churches are losing ground to other venues for people-to-people connections," says Jon Vaughan, corporate marketing director of Group Publishing, the Colorado-based firm specializing in church resources, which commissioned the poll. "Since the Internet has become an integral element of our daily lives, pastors and church leaders must be more creative in facilitating social networking -- both face-to-face and through the web."

Vaughan also believes there may be an underlying economic factor in the survey results.

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"Many people are struggling to make ends meet financially," says Vaughan. "If I'm working two jobs just to pay the bills, I want to maximize what little free time I have, and connect with people I can have fun with."

Vaughan notes the survey found several key factors that constitute friendly -- or unfriendly -- social settings:

- Making me feel like I belong (21 percent);

- Making me feel comfortable (16 percent);

- Making me feel at ease (15 percent);

- Conversation (14 percent);

- Smiles (11 percent); and

- Non-judgmental (6 percent)

Vaughan recognizes that some religious leaders will contend the church's primary purpose is to serve as a house of worship. However, he believes that to attract new members, churches must create "an inviting atmosphere with pastors and members welcoming newcomers." 

With more than 300,000 Christian churches in the United States, people are able to "church shop" in their communities more than ever, Vaughan says. 

"I meet frequently with pastors who wonder why visitors are reluctant to become members of their congregations," he says. "It may simply have to do with the perceived friendliness of the congregation."

Or the pastor.

Respondents ranked ministers below several others as the friendliest people, including: close friends, family members, neighbors, and co-workers.

"While these rankings are not surprising, it is interesting to note that the 'friendly index' of pastors was not much higher than hairstylists and store clerks," says Vaughan. "This survey clearly indicates the church in America must look for new and innovative ways to engage with its congregations."

Vaughan notes the survey found some good news for pastors: Respondents said churches were the second friendliest places in their communities behind their homes - 17 percent to 35 percent, respectively. Sports bars and restaurants placed third with 9 percent, followed by the grocery store (7 percent) and a coffee shop (5 percent). So while people may meet more new friends in a sports bar, the church is still seen as the friendlier place in general.

"We are committed to helping churches grow and become salt and light in their communities," says Vaughan, noting that Group Publishing has created a free six-week web-based series on "Becoming the Friendliest Place in Town." In addition, Group Publishing recently introduced Lifetree Café, "a weekly, hour-long online exchange of stories and conversations to feed the soul."

The online survey, conducted by Authentic Response, has a plus or minus error rate of 4 percentage points.

For the complete survey results, and for more information on Group Publishing's services and products, please visit www.group.com/church2010