by Deborah Bruce
What do we know about people who are recent arrivals to their congregation? The U.S. Congregational Life Survey reveals important information about this group of worshipers.
A recent release from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life examined people who currently are affiliated with a denomination or religion that is different from the one they grew up in. They refer to these people as “converts.” But I think that’s a bit of a misnomer. Pew’s definition says someone who attended a Methodist church as a child and now attends a Presbyterian church is a convert. And Pew includes people who made such a change a year ago and those who changed 50 years ago in the same “convert” category. The traditional definition of “convert” refers to people who have changed religion, for example from Islam to Christianity.
We examine this issue in a way that is different in two areas:
1. Instead of looking at religious change over a lifetime, we look at people who began worshiping at their current congregation in the past five years. These new people are the lifeblood of change in congregational life. In the typical congregation, about one-third of worshipers began attending in the past five years.
2. Instead of assuming all of these new people are similar (that is, all “converts”), we look at four categories of new people based on their faith background:
· First-timers who have never regularly attended anywhere.
· Returnees who participated in a congregation at some time in the past but weren’t attending anywhere recently.
· Switchers who changed denominations or faith groups when they started attending their new congregation.
· Transfers who changed congregations within the same denomination when they started attending their new congregation.
How do these four types play out in U.S. congregations? As the figure shows, very few new people are first-timers with no religious background whatsoever (8%). That’s because America is—in general—a very “churched” society. (That might change in the future as more young people today are being raised outside the church.) Some believe that conservative Protestant churches do a better job of recruiting first-timers, but only 10% of new people in such churches are first-timers.
Returnees (17%) and switchers (22%) are fairly rare, as well. Instead the bulk of new people are transfers who have simply changed congregations within their denomination.
Yet, these categories fall out differently for new people in Catholic and Protestant churches. In Catholic churches, three-quarters of new people (77%) are transfers. People who are Catholic tend to stay Catholic when they change congregations. In Protestant churches, there are slightly more switchers (38%) than transfers (31%). Protestant worshipers are more likely than Catholics to look outside their current denomination when they’re looking for a new church home.
Knowing what types of new people are coming to your congregation can help congregational leaders ease new worshipers’ transitions. Transfers understand what it means to be part of your denomination. But first-timers, returnees, and switchers lack that knowledge—something that new member classes or other programs for new people can address.
In a future post, I’ll talk more about how new people find and choose their new congregations. Stay tuned!
We’ll be taking a short break for the holiday season. Look for more updates from the U.S. Congregational Life Survey in January. Merry Christmas!