The Episcopal Diocese   
of Western Massachusetts



21st Century Congregations --  April 2015
Steve Abdow, Canon for Mission Resources


"Regular People Interviews"


Market research is essential for businesses and organizations as a means for them to become and remain viable and relevant in the market place and their communities. Knowing who your customers are and what they want and need are essential to success in the marketplace. Examples abound. While churches are not businesses, they are organizations which exist within communities and therefore can benefit from utilizing best business practices and techniques in order to function at a high level. Congregations are subject to the same laws that any organization is subject to.


We have what could be called markets, ministry opportunities, souls in need of saving - you name it. I favor a model of attraction rather than promotion. Regardless, if we're going to attract people we need to understand the market and act with that understanding in mind. We are commissioned to do this. In modern times we need to employ modern strategies.


It is fair to say that we need to examine the model of congregations in mainline denominations based on the trends that have emerged over the last 10 or 20 years; slow, steady declines in membership and giving, and tremendous challenges attracting younger generations to the church.


Market research can be complicated and it can be simple. One practice we have taken on in the year-long consulting process with the Episcopal Church Building Fund called Recasting Assets is to simply go out of our buildings and talk with people who aren't members of our churches. They call this exercise "Regular People Interviews." The idea is that they are the regular people - the ones who don't attend church. There are many more of them than there are of us. The purpose of the interviews is not to convince these people to attend the church we go to but with genuine curiosity find out what people who don't go to church think about their spiritual lives.


The interview can be conducted with friends or family or better yet with people you know casually who are less likely to already know how you feel about church attendance and how passionate you are about your own congregation. Good prospects include the person who cuts your hair or your friendly neighborhood bartender for example. Or someone you see at the gym regularly or on the sidelines of the soccer field.


Find out what people think would be of help to them in support of their spiritual side. Ask them questions like, "If you had one hour every week to spend exploring your spiritual life, how would you best like to spend that time?" "Is there something you do where you feel connected to that spiritual part of your life?" "If you could design a community that nourished your spiritual side, what would it look like? How and when would you gather?"


Not surprisingly, you will probably find common threads in the responses which will be important to know as we think about attracting people to our churches. These are important for us to hear. We would like people who don't attend our church to consider joining us. We need to ask them where they are, what they sense they need, and what is important to them.


The next phase of research is to find out who knows of your church and what they think of it. What ministries are you known for in the community? If you were to disappear tomorrow would anyone notice? I heard a story about a big stone church in the center of town located right next door to a Dunkin' Donuts. As an experiment someone went into the Dunkin' Donuts and asked if they knew where Trinity Church was. And they didn't know. It was next door. Another knew of the church but didn't think it was open. While this kind of thing can be painful to hear it is excellent information. Reality is our friend. If we want things to change we need to first know where we are.


The last phase is to find out how you can be of service to your neighbors. For example, you might go to stores and shops nearby and ask "What can we do to be of service to you?" They may ask you to just patronize their establishment. Are there unique needs in your community that you are well equipped to meet? Do you have unused space that could be of value to nearby groups?


Bottom line is we need to speak to people outside of our walls about our congregation to find out where they are, what they need, what they think of us as an entity, and how we can be of service to them and the community. That's good old fashioned market research, and is a critical part of a process of being a vital congregation.