Americans Most Likely to Try Out Church through Family, Friends

Over half of Americans say they would visit a church if they receive a personal invitation from a family member, friend or neighbor, a new study shows.

The latest LifeWay Research survey found that people are most willing to hear about a local congregation through a family member (63 percent) and through a friend or neighbor from the church (56 percent). Less than half are open to receive information about a church any other way, such as through an advertisement.

"We want to help Christians discover what approaches work best in today's culture," said Ken Weathersby, senior strategist for evangelization at the North American Mission Board, according to LifeWay. "It's not about changing the Gospel, but determining how best to share it."

The findings are released as the nation's largest churches are experiencing membership decline. The Southern Baptist Convention reported a 0.24 percent drop in total membership in 2007, the first dip in years for the largest Protestant denomination in the country.

During the SBC's annual meeting last June, then-president Frank Page acknowledged that the passion for reaching the lost may be there but there is a disconnect between churches in the denomination and the culture today.

"Many of our people simply do not know how to relate to people in 21st-century culture and have been frustrated at their inability to communicate the Gospel," Page told thousands of Southern Baptists. "Many believers do not know people who are outside the Kingdom and often do not even know their own neighbors."

The North American Mission Board, SBC's domestic mission agency, introduced a multi-faceted, flexible evangelism strategy called "God's Plan for Sharing" (GPS) that summer and plans to launch it in 2010. It is being launched in four languages including English, Spanish, Korean and Chinese.

To help guide the GPS campaign, the mission agency commissioned the LifeWay survey to find the most effective ways of sharing Christ. The goal of the evangelism initiative is to have every believer sharing and every person in North America hearing the Gospel by 2020.

"North America is a mission field. Whose job is it to reach them? Yours," says a video promoting GPS.

The survey, which LifeWay says may be the largest survey ever conducted on Americans' receptivity to different methods of church invitations, shows that conversations are the best way to invite someone to hear about Christ.

"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, in the report. "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."

Although fewer Americans are less receptive to hearing about Christ through ads, the NAMB plans to invest up to $1.2 million, according to Baptist Press, into a strategic media campaign that will accompany the GPS campaign.

According to the survey, 48 percent of Americans are willing to receive information about a local congregation through an informative ad in the newspaper, 46 percent are willing through an outdoor sign or billboard, and 45 percent are willing through letters mailed to the home.

Other findings show that Americans are most likely to be open to consider matters of faith during the Christmas holiday season (47 percent) and Easter season (38 percent) as well as after a major national crisis such as 9/11 (38 percent).

Also, Americans are most likely to be open to invitations from non-denominational churches. They are least likely to be open to invitations from Mormons.

A third of Americans say they would read a Bible as their likely first response if they wanted more information about God. Only 19 percent say would attend a church service and 10 percent would talk to a Christian friend.

Regarding follow-ups to those who have been introduced to a community of faith, the only time a majority of Americans would respond positively is through a postcard from a church advertising upcoming talks on topics that matter to them.

LifeWay Research surveyed more than 15,000 adults in December 2008.

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