By Jeff Brumley
New research suggests Americans are increasingly choosing to put down roots where they currently live, a finding that raises questions about church health.
The recent Barna Group project said mobility has declined overall over many years. Most adults — 59 percent — either plan never to move again or are doubtful that they will.
It’s a finding that intrigues ministers and congregational coaches long concerned about the decline of religious institutions in the United States. Could this development, if it holds, be a key to both the transformation and revival of an ailing American church?
The church in competition
Some ministers say they are intrigued by implications that a less mobile society can have for Christian institutions.
The possibility that more people may be arriving and staying in a community “can be a good thing” for churches located there, said Kevin Collison, pastor at Island View Baptist Church in Orange Park, Fla.
But it’s also no guarantee those choosing to stay nearby will come to church — or to keep coming back once they do, Collison said.
That’s because there are so many other places in a community for people to connect and feel a sense of belonging.
“The church has to realize we are now in competition with other community forces,” he said. “CrossFit may be their community, more maybe the microbrewery is their community.”
Ditto for coffee shops and farmers’ markets, Collison added.
In other words, people staying put may present as many challenges for congregations as it does opportunities, he said.
“I think churches are going to have to be adaptable enough to be communities for younger generations,” he said.
That must look different than it did in the post-World War II church. It has to be more than offering Sunday services and Wednesday night programs and expecting people to show up, Collison said.
People who decide to stay in an area usually do so because there is something meaningful keeping them there.
“Is it going to be the church or not?”
‘Even more intentional’
If the answer is to be the church, then its members must remember their calls to evangelize a population hungry for meaningful relationships, said David Hull, southeast coordinator for The Center for Healthy Churches.
“No longer can the church sit back and wait for people to come,” Hull said.
“Now we have to be even more intentional in saying we have an opportunity to invite you into a beloved community that is different than any other option open to you.”
Hull said he’s seen evidence of the accuracy of Barna’s research through the coaching he’s provided search committees seeking new pastors and other ministers.
Increasingly, churches are hearing back from potential candidates unwilling to relocate for an open pulpit or other position, Hull said.
“This is why we are seeing more and more churches calling staff members from within their congregations,” he said.
But the trend is also a positive for institutions built on the premise of authentic relationships between members and with Jesus Christ, Hull added.
“That’s the difference from the fitness club and everywhere else,” he said.
‘A place of community and relationships’
The Barna study also found some generational distinctions at play in the trend away from geographical mobility.
“When asked how much longer they plan to live in their current city or town, Millennials are significantly more likely than older generations to say they plan to move in the short-term,” Barna reported.
Research found that 14 percent of Millennials, compared to 6 percent of the general population, say they will remain in a place for less than one year.
While those statistics change with age, Barna’s Roxanne Stone said the lesson for churches is to remember the importance relationships play in decisions to move or not move.
“Churches and ministry leaders in particular, should pay attention to the significant pull that relationships have on people,” Stone, a Barna vice president, said on its website. “Relationships are the primary reason people live where they live.”
“That’s great for church,” he said. “We are a place of community and relationships.”