The Next Niche Market

In the competitive church market, where ministry heavyweights duke it out for supremacy with ever greater programmatic offerings, ever larger campuses, ever bigger high definition broadcast screens and quality technical equipment and expertise (I saw where a church in Georgia recently hired a production manager for $225,000 per year…), mid- to small-size churches lament. There is no way to compete with all the ‘zazz,’ ‘flash,’ and ‘sparkle’ of these mammoth congregations, let alone obtain the resources to acquire adequate property and staff. For most churches, the game is lost before it even begins.

Ah, but there is hope. The market for mega-church shoppers may be saturated in the short term. Recent research shows that there is a golden opportunity for congregations who are willing to specialize. The current interest in house churches and some of what the early emerging church movement discovered reveals that there is a significant population of Christian seekers in the United States looking for a distinctly different church experience. Want to capitalize on the new niche? Think small.

I worked on a Seeker Study while employed by the General Board of Discipleship — begun in 2003 in conjunction with United Methodist Communications — the explored the hopes, dreams, preferences, and journey of Christian spiritual Seekers who do not attend church. (Note: across the United States, the term “unchurched” is viewed as a negative term. Besides treating church as a verb, most people interviewed dislike the core idea that church is something that is done to a person.) This sample includes responses from 3,853 people across a wide and diverse demographic of age, race, economic and educational status, geographic location (within the United States), and a good gender balance (54% female, 46% male).

Conversation with non-church-attending Christians allows them to explain why they do not feel the need for a church, and what kind of church they would find most attractive were they inclined to attend. Surprisingly, over 80% (3,207) report that they are “open” or “very open” to attending a church, but that they have yet to find one where they feel welcomed, nurtured, and/or challenged. Closer to 90% (3,421) say they have visited churches (within the past five years), and 71% (2,734) were “brought up” in a church setting (where church was a ‘normal’ part of their weekly experience). Most non-church-attending Christians are disappointed and frustrated with established churches — both mainline and independent — rather than angry. For the most part, Christian Seekers are hungry for knowledge and experience of God, and they are disillusioned by what they find offered by the institutional church — especially in large-to-mega-church congregations.

While size and resources are a huge draw for many Americans, one of the highest values of Christian Seekers not attending church is intimacy. In describing an ideal church, 81% (3,121) reported that they would not be interested in a church with more than 75 members.
size-of-congregation1
When pressed to explain these preferences, the consensus is that the Christian journey requires true, “real” community, where a person can have deep relationships with a handful of people, but be on a first name basis with every other person. The ability to know and be known — to understand both the individual and collective faith story — is what many Seekers seek most. Many respondents spoke wistfully of finding a place where everyone was journeying together — asking hard questions, learning deep truths, and serving the community and world together. Unity, loyalty, connection, and collaboration characterize the answers of most Seekers when they talk about the ideal church. They don’t want to spend a lot of time on committees — where they feel ministry is talked about, but where little ministry actually occurs. They don’t want to see resources spent on buildings, equipment, and professional staff. They want to join together to do whatever they can to be like Christ in the world. Most say they feel “lost” in a church with more than 100 people in it.

In many places, such Christian Seekers find each other and begin to form the kinds of communities they long for, apart from ‘organized’ religion. While they lack a sacramental theology and practice, they create a rich life of prayer, study, service, fellowship, and worship. And still, the majority would love to find a congregation ready to include them and speed them on their way along the paths of spiritual development.

In a denomination such as ours (United Methodist, if you forgot) that is already 75% “small membership churches,” you might think we have an advantage. However, many of our small membership churches are not small by choice. Many are in decline. Many are trying desperately to be “bigger.” Many are dysfunctional or dying. None of these are precisely what the spiritual Seekers are looking for. However, we have two exciting opportunities within our denomination to reach and serve this niche market: the revitalization of some of our smaller congregations to stay small, but become healthy; and, the launch of new churches with the goal and vision of staying small and healthy. (Yeah, yeah, I know. Crazy talk!!)

I am not bad-mouthing big churches. There are plenty of strong, healthy big churches, and there will continue to be a market for big churches, but this market may fast be hitting saturation. There simply may not be more room for mega-churches — the market is sated. However, I do speak a word of grace to small membership churches, and offer a vision of hope for being small and proud of it. Where the focus of a small congregation is to faithfully learn and teach, to equip, send, and support, to become the hands and heart of Christ for the world, there is a largely untapped market potential. It is time for us as a denomination to think strategically about the ways to make the small healthy, instead of big.

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