Social psychology research identified a number of factors that most likely played into your decision-making when you were seeking a new church:
Familiarity: Let’s say you decide to do a web search. Where do you start? What search terms should you enter? If you went on Yelp, what names would catch your eye? What type of Christian groups would you immediately rule out? Certain words or names trigger a response in your mind, others pass through virtually unnoticed. There is a good chance that you would gravitate towards something that struck some familiar chord in your memory.
The next question is, would you come back after an initial visit? A new style of worship can be quite a culture shock. What would make you feel awkward? Would it be a pastor in a long robe or in a Hawaii shirt? Would you feel confused by a service full of liturgical bells and whistles or by a deliberately casual style? Do you feel more drawn to bistro tables with coffee and muffins, or to a church with candles and stained-glass windows? There is a good chance that you will end up gravitating towards a place that resembles what you are used to.
Similarity: People have preferences for a reason. Certain views that are important to you sharply distinguish you from other people with their own deeply held standpoints. When you start interacting with someone you don’t know, you will flip a series of switches in one another, which will determine whether you politely end the conversation or exchange phone numbers. It can be sobering to realize that we are all somehow set in our ways. We tend to like people who look like us, talk like us, and think like us.
Proximity: Coming back to the example of selecting a new church, you may find the perfect match on the other side of town. You attend for a month or two and then grow weary of the 45-minute commutes and the difficulties building relationships that come with the long distance. After a while, you decide to go with the less than perfect match that is closer to home, because the second best but sustainable option ultimately prevails over what is perfect but unfeasible. Eventually, you will likely feel genuinely attracted to where you are, regardless of your original preference. The emergence of attraction depends on actual exposure, including opportunities to get to know people and time spent together with them.
Complementarity: Although similarity is a strong driver of affinity, in many cases we feel drawn to what is distinctly different from us. A calm and slightly anxious woman may feel challenged and empowered by her bold and bubbly partner, who in turn, likes the way her down-to-earth manners help him stay grounded. Complementary needs and assets can create a strong bond that is rooted in tangible day-to-day benefits. For instance, you may connect with a church that is in need of certain skills you can bring to the table. The complementarity of the congregation’s appreciation for your help and the sense of purpose and belonging you experience as a result creates a strong mutual attraction.
Reciprocity: We all enjoy being liked and will usually respond with a favorable attitude; we reciprocate. Making someone feel liked is a powerful attractant. Interestingly, churches and businesses try doing this in similar ways. The greeter at the door resembles the barista who welcomes you when you enter the coffee place. Once you fill out a contact card or leave our email address, you start receiving a steady stream of personalized invitations and messages suggesting to you that you are being noticed, valued, and courted. The assumption is that this will likely kindle at least a sense of obligation to show a favorable response, perhaps even an actual feeling of affection.
Attractiveness: Research shows that first impressions go a long way in either sparking or suppressing relational motives. There is evidence that aesthetic beauty is particularly important in attracting and holding the attention of others in the initial phase of relational exploration. Beauty is a combination of facial and bodily features, smell, and dress. Studies in different parts of the world suggest that certain aspects of aesthetic beauty vary between cultures. However, there are also shared characteristics, e.g. the general preference of a youthful look. Perceived attractiveness also depends on features such as an engaging personality and higher status.