Many churches gear up for outreach-oriented ministry during the holiday season. Thousands of churches offer seasonal musical or theatrical events, most churches have special holiday services, and a concerted effort is made to attract and welcome visitors. But a new research study indicates that most Protestant churches have overlooked one important matter: nobody is covering the phones!
Based on attempted telephone contact with 3400 Protestant churches randomly selected from across the nation during December, the study by the Barna Research Group, of Ventura, California, reveals that a human being could not be reached at 55% of the nation’s churches. Overall, one out of every five Protestant churches (19%) had neither a person nor an answering machine responding to calls; the phone simply rang without any response in each of the five separate attempts. One out of every six churches (16%) had an answering machine responding to all five attempts. One out of every five churches (20%) had either an answering machine or no answer at all during the initial five attempts. (In the study, every church sampled was called a minimum of five times during business hours, with one call made each day at different times of the day over the course of a two-week period.)
Distinctions by Denomination
Some types of churches were more responsive to incoming calls than were others. The most responsive groups among those measured were United Methodist (64% provided a human response), National Baptist (62%) and Southern Baptist churches (61%). Mainline churches, as a group, were also highly responsive: 63% had a person answering the phones during the initial five call attempts. (Mainline churches include American Baptist, United Church of Christ, Episcopal, Evangelical Lutheran, United Methodist and Presbyterian Church U.S.A. congregations.)
The churches that were least likely to provide human contact were Baptist churches other than Southern Baptist or National Baptist (no person ever answered the phone after five attempts at 65% of those churches), Holiness churches (62% non-human response), Church of God in Christ (56%), and the Christian/Church of Christ congregations (56% non-response). (The Holiness group of churches includes those associated with the Nazarene, Christian & Missionary Alliance, Church of God – Anderson, Wesleyan, and Free Methodist denominations.)
Churches most likely to have neither a human response nor an answering machine were the Holiness group (30%), COGIC congregations (27%) and Baptist churches other than Southern and National Baptist (24%).
Surprisingly, the research also indicated that there were huge differences in church accessibility by geographic region. The most reachable churches were those in the Mountain and western states; two-thirds of the Protestant churches in that area (65%) provided a response by a human being within the first five call attempts. The toughest area in which to make personal contact was the South. Only one-third of the churches in the southern states (36%) had a personal response to a call within the first five contact attempts. About half of the churches in the Midwest (49%) and in the Northeast (52%) offered a live response to incoming calls.
Reflections On the Data
These statistics suggest that much of the hard work that churches put into reaching people during the holiday season may be negated by people’s inability to establish contact with someone at the church within a reasonable time frame. George Barna, who directed the study, encouraged people to capture the big picture provided these data rather than to focus on the denominational or regional differences.
“Instant communication has become second-nature in our world,” noted Barna. “With cell phones, instant messaging, and other high tech means of facilitating immediate contact with others, organizations that seemingly defy people to penetrate their fortress quickly become an after-thought in people’s lives. Busy schedules, competitiveness and questions about the user-friendly quotient of churches make it increasingly unlikely that consumers – especially those who are not connected or only marginally associated with a church – will endure the frustration of difficult communication to pursue a church. If ministry is based on relationships and interaction, then many churches might find it easier to penetrate the community if they were more accessible to the people who are showing an interest in the church.”
The data described above are from telephone interviews with a nationwide random sample of 3400 Protestant churches conducted in December 2003. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. The sampling error for the denominational and regional subgroups varies from +2.4 percentage points to +9.7 points at the 95% significance interval. 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. Up to five calls were made to each church, each on a different day and at different times within normal business hours.
The Barna Group, Ltd. (which includes its research division, The Barna Research Group) is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization that conducts primary research on a wide range of issues and products, produces resources pertaining to cultural change, leadership and spiritual development, and facilitates the healthy spiritual growth of leaders, children, families and Christian ministries. Located in Ventura, California, Barna has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984. If you would like to receive free e-mail notification of the release of each new, bi-monthly update on the latest research findings from The Barna Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna website (www.barna.org). Additional research-based resources, both free and at discounted prices, are also available through that website.
© The Barna Group, Ltd, 2009.
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