How Churches Get You Hooked, Part 1: In the Door

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So last Sunday, I went to a church service, as prelude to a cookout/date with a human female I am interested in. I’ve also been reading Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, and studying how video games and social media are designed to extract maximum time and attention.

Two and two clicked in my head, so I decided to use my (admittedly limited) new church experience to dissect why churches, specifically, are such mainstays of so many people’s lives.

Note: I will not name any specific church, even though this article is basically glued together by an anecdotal experience I had. Also, this post series is specifically about Christian churches in the United States.

Social Proof:

On the macro level, religious service attendance (especially weekly) is fairly high in the United States, especially among different Christian denominations. The more stereotypically hardcore sects have higher rates of at-least-weekly attendance, coming as approximately no surprise. Like a harvest of wheat from a gigantic American field, family and community members can, if not always win over their children, at least gain a starting advantage from the status quo.

Converting newcomers to regular churchgoers, however, is less like predictable farming and more hands-on gardening. The seeds of attendance are planted more carefully, in this case the offering of a cookout and a chance to “hang out” with someone I like and meet her family. (What’s the proper word for “playdate, but it’s not necessarily a romantic date and you’re both adults instead of toddlers and you arranged it yourselves”? Three seconds of synonym Googling were fruitless!)

These techniques, for the uninitiated, all tie into the Influence book’s idea of social proof: when more people do something, it seems more normal and good. (To see the power of this, try not taking off your hat during the Pledge of Allegiance at a football game.)

Full disclosure: the woman who brought me to church was acknowledged for her “touch”, as in she “touched” somebody (me) in the name of the Lord, by bringing me to church. The group’s leaders knew that a one-off invitation with sufficient motivation (food + female human) would work on many like me. Even if they did not have formal training in Influence, with a capital “I” and italics, Christianity has had thousands of years and many experimenting factions vying for followers. Accidentally hitting on techniques that work, and then spreading their usage far and wide, is no surprise.

(Editor’s note: The author worked very hard to not make a bad joke when describing his love interest spiritually touching him. Please take a moment of silence for his willpower, which will be tapped out for days after writing this.)

Familiarity, Design, and Franchising:

Here, we see techniques from the art and design worlds, dovetailing with the above techniques to supercharge church intake.

The most inviting churches to the non-regulars are, holding all else equal, often the most normal-looking ones, given the surrounding environment. A gigantic glowing Scientology logo would be out of place in Barcelona, Spain, just as La Sagrada Familia would be very strange in Los Angeles.

At the same time, churches need to attract the kinds of visitors in the area they will serve. Thus, the artistic imperative for “the familiar, with a twist” must be carried out by an individual church, like a McDonald’s changing its architecture just right to attract customers in India or Sweden. We’ll come back to this idea of community-focused franchising later, but for now, just remember that churches can adapt their persuasion techniques to uniquely suit their audiences. This is a powerful tactic, but it can also split a church along factional lines, resulting in smaller and less-accessible denominations.

In closing:

Join me, the next time Beeminder reminds me to post something, as we look at how a church can keep you around after arriving, so you won’t bail out before the sermon starts…

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