Reprinted from the Barna Research Group

Ventura, CA--Change is everywhere. Three well-documented trends include people's increased interest in faith, the nation's move toward being a service-based economy, and the increased accessibility of people and organizations through new communications technology. Since these three trends relate to the ability of churches to be effective, the natural assumption is that access to churches must be easier and faster than ever.

Unfortunately, that assumption proved to be inaccurate according to a new study among 3764 Protestant churches conducted by the Barna Research Group. The research reveals that contact with a person was not established with 40% of the churches called, even though multiple callbacks--as many as 12 per church--were placed. Amazingly, at almost half of the churches (44%) at which human interaction was not established, there was not even an answering machine available to capture or relay a message.

It takes an average of 2.1 telephone calls to reach a human being at a Protestant church during regular business hours on weekdays. Of the calls placed, one-third were answered on the first call; a person was not accessed until at least the fourth call at one out of every ten churches of the accessible churches.

Differences Among Churches

Mainline churches were slightly more responsive than were evangelical churches (at 73% and 66%, respectively, a person answered the church's phone). Within each of those categories were some significant divergences, though. The mainline churches ranged from a person answering the call at 83% of Episcopal churches to 66% among the American Baptist churches. Among the evangelical churches the greatest accessibility was achieved among Christian & Missionary Alliance (100%, based on a small sample) and non-denominational evangelical (80%) churches.

Black churches had the lowest responsiveness among the various categories of churches. However, there were huge differences in responsiveness among black churches. For instance, a person answered the telephone at some point among only 9% of the AME Zion churches called, 28% of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC) and 32% among the AME churches. However, calls were answered at 76% of the Missionary Baptist and 71% of the National Baptist churches.

Charismatic and Pentecostal churches also had substantially below-average response rates: a person answered the phone at just 53% of those churches. Independent fundamentalist churches, on the other hand, had among the highest response rates (81%).

Overall, the denominations that attract the largest numbers of people also had above-average response rates. Those included the Southern Baptist (66%), United Methodist (73%), Evangelical Lutheran (74%), Presbyterian Church U.S.A. (70%), Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod (65%), Episcopal (83%), and Assembly of God (62%) churches.

Size and Location Matter

Getting through to churches is slightly tougher in the West than elsewhere: only 57% of the Protestant churches in the West provided a live contact, compared to 60% in the Northeast, 61% in the South and 62% in the Midwest. Interestingly, however, reaching a person on the first call attempt is more likely to occur among churches in the West than among churches elsewhere in the country (37% in the West versus 32% elsewhere).

Church size also made a difference. The larger the church, the more likely a person was to answer the telephone. The research also showed that the larger the church is the more likely it is to answer the phone the first time a person calls: that happened on 70% of the calls among churches that have 250 or more adult attenders, compared to 55% at churches that attract 100 to 250 adults and just 44% of the churches that attract fewer than 100 adults.

Challenges to Churches

These statistics shed light on a challenge for churches that hope to connect with their surrounding communities. "The exact statistics by denomination or church size are less important than the overall revelation about the inaccessibility of churches," was the reaction of George Barna, president of the research firm that conducted the study. "In a world where people are extremely busy and are suspicious of the practical value of churches, they are not likely to make three or four calls to a church before they get to speak to a human being. Churches that influence their communities emphasize connections - meaningful personal relationships built upon an attitude of mutual caring and concern. The ability to communicate both personally and on-demand is crucial to fostering trust and continuity in a relationship. If churches really want to help people, they have to be accessible. When we make it difficult for people to get our attention, we send a negative message about the heart of the church while also training them to look elsewhere during their times of need."

Barna pointed out that most churches have not exhausted the creative options available for fostering better communications. "Some churches have their calls forwarded to the homes of volunteers who will answer incoming calls on behalf of the church. Some have been hooked up to relatively inexpensive voice messaging systems that are available from the church's telephone service provider. Others have installed inexpensive telephone answering machines to at least allow people to leave messages. There are many creative and inexpensive ways for churches that are presently inaccessible to make connections easier for everyone."

Research Methodology

The data described above are from telephone interviews with a nationwide random sample of 3764 Protestant churches conducted in June and July 2000. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. All of the interviews were conducted from the Barna Research Group telephone interviewing facility in Ventura, CA. Protestant churches in the 48 continental states were eligible to be interviewed and the distribution of sampled churches coincided with the distribution of churches by denominational affiliation and by geographic location throughout the U.S. Multiple callbacks were used to increase the probability of connecting with a church chosen for the sample. A maximum of 12 such calls made, each on a different day and at different times of the day.

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