“What in the world do people want?” Ever asked that question when you thought you knew, shot and were then told you missed? Well, a major study involving over 1,000 congregations of different denominations across the United States and Canada asked just that. The unambiguous answers may surprise you. They also explain why, following the major uptick in attendance for several weeks after 9/11, so many people didn’t come back: they didn’t find what they wanted. They wondered, “Where’s the beef?” So what do people want from their church? Here are the top four things this study found.
#1 People want help in developing a relationship with Christ. While 68% of people who were in the earliest stages faith marked this, 83% and 89% of those in intermediate and more advanced stages of faith marked it. Is this surprising to you? It was, at first, to me. And then I realized that in most communities, why else would people be in church? They can find better entertainment elsewhere in town. Better food! Fellowship is available in so many different gatherings. To grow spiritually, to connect with God, to develop their relationship with Christ – that’s what the church has to offer that no other organization in our community has to offer. And if we excel at offering everything else, but fail to offer people help in growing spiritually, then we have failed to offer the number one thing that people are coming to church to find. We don’t have to soft pedal this. We don’t have to sugar coat it. We don’t have to slip it in on the side. This is why most people bother coming to church in the first place. They are looking for a spiritual connection with Christ.
#2 People want help in understanding the Bible in greater depth. The study was overwhelming clear here, too. Even in the exploratory phase of faith 67% of people checked this. In the intermediate and advanced phases of faith 82% and 89% marked it. This means that people are not interested in Bible-light. They are not interested in Dr. Phil or Oprah or historical references or Reader’s Digest have to say when they come to church. They want to know what the Bible has to say and how that relates to their everyday life. They can get every other source of information elsewhere. So whether we start with Scripture and move to life or start with life and move to Scripture, people really want to know what God’s Word has to say and how to apply it to their lives today.
Similarly, the study indicated that the number one catalyst for spiritual growth was whether people established and kept the habit of daily engaging with Scripture themselves. Far more predictive than worship attendance or small discipling group participation, setting aside prayerful time to read and reflect on Scripture for themselves was more than twice as predictive of spiritual growth as any other factor. You might wonder if your congregation teaches and encourages people to read their Bibles and reflect on how the Holy Spirit is speaking into their lives and what it means to respond obediently? Those that reported times when they had stalled out spiritually said that the way they regained momentum in their spiritual life was to re-establish disciplines of daily prayer and Bible reflection.
In other words, not only is engaging Scripture what people want, it is what people need to grow spiritually. And if the local church doesn’t help them do that . . . who will?
#3 People want church leaders who model & consistently reinforce how to grow spiritually. 66% of those beginning their faith journey, 78% of those along the way and 84% of those who are more advanced marked this item. Since people are looking to the church to help them grow spiritually, they are also looking for the church’s leaders to embody spiritual growth with authenticity. When people come to church, they are not interested in church politics and power plays. They are not looking for leaders who wield power and maintain the reigns of control like Machiavelli. They are looking for persons of genuine faith who are themselves engaged in the spiritual journey with Christ and are further along the way than they are. They aren’t interested in playing church or engaging in denominational recue politics. They are interested in leaders who can help them grow in their walk with Christ.
This is the time of year when congregations are taking a second look at their leadership in preparation for Charge Conference. It is easy to pick persons for leadership because they have always been in leadership in your church. It is easy to pick persons who seem successful in the secular world. But if you are not picking persons who take seriously their own spiritual journey, you are not picking the leaders that the church needs or that people in the pew are really hoping to follow.
#4 People want to be challenged to take the next steps in their spiritual journey. While this was not one of the top five choices for those at the beginning of their faith journey, 74% of those along the way and 82% of those in the more advanced phase of faith marked this item. In other words, people want help in identifying what the implications of following Jesus Christ are and then to be challenged to go for it. They want to be clear about what it means to be a disciple and then to be encouraged to live into this with faithfulness and obedience. They aren’t interested in being molly coddled. They aren’t interested in vague feel-good generalities. They really want to gain clarity about what following Jesus really means and then challenged to step up to the plate and swing.
So, think about your Sunday school class, your small group, your women’s circle or men’s group or youth group, your worship services, and your sermons. Do they reflect these as the top four things that people are looking for from your congregation? How might you use this information to beef up what your congregation is offering people?
By the way, the study I’m referring to is reported in the book, Move: What 1,000 Congregations Said About Spiritual Growth, by Greg L. Hawkins and Cally Parkinson, published by Willow Creek, 2011.
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Dr. Jeff Stiggins
The Center for Congregational Excellence