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Americans open to invitations to church

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Despite worries among evangelicals that Americans are set against attending church, most people would attend if invited in a way that sparks their responsiveness.

A recent study by the North American Mission Board (NAMB) and LifeWay Research found that 67 percent of Americans say a personal invitation from a family member would be effective in getting them to visit a church. A personal invitation from a friend or neighbor would be effective for 63 percent of those surveyed.

“We want to help Christians discover what approaches work best in today’s culture,” said Ken Weathersby, NAMB senior strategist for evangelization. “It’s not about changing the Gospel but determining how best to share it.”

Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) are willing to receive information about a local congregation or faith community from a family member, and 56 percent are willing to receive such information from a friend or neighbor.

“The primary lesson North American believers should learn from this research is that many of your unchurched friends are ready for an invitation to conversation,” said Ed Stetzer, director of LifeWay Research. “Unbelievers next door still need a simple, personal invitation to talk, to be in community and to church. Clearly, relationships are important and work together with marketing.”

The survey, commissioned by NAMB and conducted by LifeWay Research, may be the largest survey ever conducted of Americans’ receptivity to different methods of church invitations. LifeWay Research, the research arm of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention, surveyed more than 15,000 adults in December 2008 using a random, demographically balanced, stratified sample of Americans. NAMB commissioned the research as one of the steps to prepare for “God’s Plan for Sharing,” its national evangelism initiative that will launch nationwide in 2010.

Of 13 approaches tested, personal invitations from family members or friends is the only method that a majority of Americans say would effectively draw them to church. Visiting door-to-door received the least favorable reception.

Less than a quarter of Americans (24 percent) are willing to receive information from a local congregation through a visit to their door. Nevertheless, 31 percent say a visit to their door would be effective in getting them or others to visit a church.

Church advertising efforts take a back seat to personal invitations from family and friends. Americans say they are somewhat willing or very willing to receive information about church via newspaper ads (46 percent), radio ads (41 percent) and television ads (40 percent). People reacted similarly to receiving information from a local congregation through outdoor advertising (46 percent) and letters mailed to the home (45 percent). Just over 10 percent are very willing to receive information from those forms of advertising; up to a third, somewhat willing. Less than 10 percent, however, think such ads would be very effective in getting them or others to visit a church.

“This research confirms that media advertising efforts can undergird and enhance those personal approaches while not relying on them alone,” said Brandon Pickett, leader of NAMB’s communications team.

Internet communication from churches also is unwelcome by most Americans; 66 percent of those surveyed are unwilling to receive information through an e-mail message, and 70 percent say e-mail would be ineffective in getting them to visit a church.

In addition to the method of inviting, the inviter’s denomination makes a difference. Americans are most open to invitations from nondenominational churches and least open to invitations from Mormons.

Twenty percent of respondents selected a nondenominational church when asked in the survey, “Considering your response to the methods used by a local congregation or faith community … would the invitation be more effective, less effective or about the same if you knew the invitation was from one of the following types of churches?”

Southern Baptist invitations are more effective for 11 percent of Americans, while Roman Catholic invitations are more effective for 15 percent.

More than two-thirds (67 percent) find invitations from Mormons less effective. Invitations from a Pentecostal church are less effective for half of Americans.

“It is not surprising that denominational identification is a factor,” Stetzer said. “Other studies have shown that many have background, experience or some connection with one or more denominations that would shape their opinions about congregations that bear these titles.”

At particular points in life, people are more open to considering matters of faith, the survey found. For nearly half of the respondents (47 percent), the Christmas season is the most common time for them to be open to spiritual matters. Americans also are open to matters of faith during the Easter season (38 percent); after a major national crisis such as 9/11 (38 percent); after a natural disaster (34 percent); and following the birth of a baby (28 percent).

But once people receive information from a community of faith, there are very few follow-up steps they are willing to take. The only scenario to which a majority of Americans (52 percent) might visit a church is by receiving a postcard from a church about upcoming talks on topics that matter to them.

The least appealing follow-up option is making a phone call. If Americans see an ad with interesting information about matters of faith and an 800 number to request more information, less than 20 percent say they would call.

Finally, the survey asked Americans about their likely first response if they wanted more information about God. A third say they would read a Bible, 19 percent would attend a church service and 10 percent would talk to a Christian friend.

Only 1 percent would watch a preacher or worship service on television and 1 percent would explore the website of a local church. Less than 1 percent would ask questions in an anonymous chat room or online community.

“Churches may be discouraged to see potential responses of less than 10 percent, yet even Jesus Christ referred to small percentages when He referred to leaving the 99 to go after one lost sheep,” Stetzer said. “Believers are a people committed to faithful sharing of the Gospel, and we can trust the Holy Spirit in His faithful work in drawing people to a saving knowledge of Christ.”
David Roach is a writer in Louisville, Ky.