Preacher Feature

lordsdaypreacher1I have some very faithful friends who have continued to collect data and information for research projects I launched but was unable to complete.  One of the questions we began exploring last summer is “What are people looking for in a sermon?”  We asked this of three separate audiences:  long-time members of the same congregation, people who are looking for a church with which to connect, and those who are not actively seeking a congregation, but might in the future.  The results are kind of fun.  One question this survey answers unequivocally: preaching is extremely important to all three groups, but for fundamentally different reasons.

While our sample isn’t statistically significant, it is fairly representative.  If you’re not interested in the make-up of our sample, skip on to the next paragraph.  A total of 838 lay people (406 in the south-central jurisdiction; 432 in the north-central jurisdiction) were interviewed.  Approximately 56% of the sample is White/Anglo, 14% is African American, 13% is Hispanic/Latino, 9% is Pacific Rim/Asian American, 6% is mixed background, 2% are other.  We did not have a substantial Native American segment in the sample.  617 of the respondents are regular church goers, 146 are looking for a church, and 75 are open to the idea of church, but are not presently seeking a congregation.  68% of the sample is female, 32% male.  31% are age 30 or under, 28% are between the ages of 31 and 55, and 41% are 56 or older.  All regular church goers are United Methodist.

Regular church goers name music (81%) and preaching (79%) as “very important” aspects of the worship experience.  What these people look for in a “good sermon” is as follows:

  • helpful instruction on living the Christian life (66%)
  • encouragement (63%)
  • inspiration to live a life pleasing to God (54%)
  • personal stories from the preacher’s life/experience (48%)
  • challenge to grow in the Christian faith (47%)
  • deeper knowledge of what the Bible means (42%)
  • entertaining stories and illustrations of the Christian faith (41%)
  • clarity and understanding about God’s will for my life (40%)
  • clarity and understanding about God’s will for the world (33%)
  • clarity and understanding about God’s will for the local church/community of faith (27%)

These ten characteristics differ greatly for those seeking a new church home.  For one thing, preaching is named as a critical factor for 92% of those responding.  Music is still important, but only to 60%.

  • clarity and understanding about God’s will for my life (74%)
  • helpful instruction on living the Christian life (70%)
  • deeper knowledge of what the Bible means (65%)
  • clarity and understanding about God’s will for the world (60%)
  • challenge to grow in the Christian faith (58%)
  • inspiration to live a life pleasing to God (51%)
  • encouragement (40%)
  • entertaining stories and illustrations of the Christian faith (33%)
  • personal stories from the preacher’s life/experience (21%)
  • clarity and understanding about God’s will for the local church/community of faith (17%)

Then, there’s an interesting difference for those who may one day seek a church home.  First of all 95% say the preaching is a make-or-break factor in whether they would join a church or not.  Only one-third (32%) say the music would matter that much.  Their top ten look like this:

  • clarity and understanding about God’s will for my life (80%)
  • clarity and understanding about God’s will for the world (77%)
  • deeper knowledge of what the Bible means (70%)
  • inspiration to live a life pleasing to God (45%)
  • helpful instruction on living the Christian life (41%)
  • challenge to grow in the Christian faith (38%)
  • encouragement (27%)
  • clarity and understanding about God’s will for the local church/community of faith (20%)
  • personal stories from the preacher’s life/experience (10%)
  • entertaining stories and illustrations of the Christian faith (8%)

Now, a few observations about what simply wasn’t that important to anyone.

Style — no one enjoys poor preaching, but when the content is good, the style simply isn’t that important.  Respondents expressed appreciation for a wide variety of preaching styles, but agree that sometimes the style and delivery actually get in the way of the message, rather than enhance it.

Length — once again, if the content is good, it really doesn’t matter how long (or how short) the sermon is.  If there is any bias in the sample, White/Anglos prefer the shortest sermons, as do long time church attenders.

Gender — long time church goers have a slight preference for men over women preachers, as do African Americans and Hispanic/Latinos, however there is virtually no preference by church shoppers and those not currently seeking a congregation.

Something many people in all three groups mentioned was the importance of “Biblical” preaching, though what people mean by “Biblical” is a bit fuzzy.  Often, people feel that preaching is “Biblical” when it affirms and supports personal beliefs.  Those looking for a church and those speculating on what they would prefer were most adamant that the sermon should reflect and explain the morning’s scripture readings.  Long time church goers were most comfortable with topical sermons that bear a tenuous connection to the scripture readings.

Regarding taboo topics for preachers?  There are none.  The general rule is “if it’s in the Bible or affects the life of a Christian disciple,” it’s okay.  We offered people a checklist of topics for people to choose what they didn’t want to hear about in sermons, along with what they thought were appropriate sermon topics.  Contrary to popular myth, more people want to hear sermons about money and giving than do not.  Only about 1-in-20 feel money-talk is inappropriate from the pulpit (obviously a vocal 5%, but only 5% nonetheless…).  Only 1-in-12 (8%) feel politics is taboo — but with one extremely important caution: virtually no one approves of a preacher using the pulpit to spout personal political beliefs and opinions as “truth.”  Listeners want preachers to lift up critical political issues and offer scriptural perspectives that can help them make up their own minds.  Bully pulpits are unacceptable.  Only 1-in-10 (10%) think preachers should avoid controversial social and ethical issues, and a mere 1-in-7 (14%) oppose sex-talk from the pulpit.  4-out-of-5 people coming to church desire help applying biblical and theological lenses to the large life issues they face.  This 80% majority feel the preacher is not doing her or his job by avoiding such important topics.

And a word of advice for all preachers: don’t dumb it down.  Simplistic, formulaic, easy answers won’t fly in a complex world.  Slogans, platitudes, and bumper-sticker theology are big turn-offs.  71% of respondents found “What Would Jesus Do?” to be “silly,” “insulting,” “cheap,” “ridiculous,” “embarrassing,” or some other less-than-enticing variation on the theme.  Most listeners want credible, substantive, and practical guidance from their preachers.

The charisma and reputation of the preacher was most attractive to church shoppers, very important to long time church goers, and of virtually no interest to those not actively seeking a church.

Perhaps the greatest challenge to modern mainline preachers is an almost 50-50 split between those who want sermons to be challenging, intellectually stimulating, and provocative and those who want sermons to calm, pacify and comfort.  51% of listeners don’t want to have to work hard when listening to a sermon.  They prefer stories with morals rather than admonition, invitation, or a call to action.  However, 49% (predominantly from those not affiliated with a congregation) want preaching that not only educates but also requires a response.  There is a deep sense that preaching should motivate (but not manipulate) people to act.  There is also a strong preference for sermons focusing on what God wants us to do, instead of what God doesn’t want us to do.  In other words, less focus on the past, our sins, and our failures, and more focus on the future, our gifts, and a vision God’s will for all creation.

Long time church goers prefer sermons that comfort, inspire, and encourage.  They are least concerned with God’s will for them personally, for the congregation as a whole, or for the world.  Because they have an ongoing  relationship with the pastor, they enjoy the preacher’s personal anecdotes and entertaining stories.  Less than half seek a deeper understanding of the Bible or instruction in growing in the Christian faith.

This shifts dramatically for those actively seeking a church — which may reflect the basic motivations that bring them in the first place.  They are much more interested in God’s will for their personal lives, and they are seeking guidance for how to better understand and live their faith.  Encouragement, stories, preacher’s personal anecdotes, and God’s will for the larger congregation are of much less importance.

Those unaffiliated with a congregation hold a clear and narrow view of what preaching should do: reveal God’s will for their lives, for the world, and help them understand the Bible.  This group views preaching as a fundamentally practical act — it should reveal how to live the Christian life in accordance with God’s will.  Stories, encouragement, and entertainment don’t matter to this group very much at all.

Interestingly, none of the groups indicate great interest in God’s will for the congregation as a community of faith.  This probably reflects a cultural bias toward individuality.  Older Hispanic/Latino church goers were most interested in a corporate sense of God’s will.  Older African Americans were second.

86% of all respondents say that “if the sermon isn’t good” it significantly affects the overall worship experience negatively.  88% report that “when the sermon is good,” they experience the whole worship service more positively.

This may not tell us anything new, but it gives some further insight into the centrality of “the preaching moment” in the service of worship.  People do care, they want to hear a “good word,” and different people come seeking different things.  The vast majority of people seek guidance and counsel in how to live a life that is personally meaningful as well as pleasing to God — and they look to the preacher to provide it.

10 replies

  1. In my attempt to witness the work of evangelism we did at Musao where I served the church as an ordained United Methodist minister, I first going to give an overview of Musao parish. I will then explain how we reached people with the gospel of Jesus Christ. On this point I will give a definition of evangelism and see some elements we needed to fulfill the commissioning of the church. Next, I will look at the most effective evangelism method we personally used to reach others with the gospel and the praxis of evangelism. Furthermore I will make suggestions for implementation by the local church. Finally I will end with a conclusion.
    1. An Overview of Musao Parish.
    Let me begin by giving a short description of Musao Parish. Musao Parish is a chieftown and one of the five United Methodist local churches of Kisula circuit, Mwanza Seya district in the United Methodist Church North Katanga Annual Conference.
    In a political way, Musao is a big village located in the northern side of the administrative territory of Malemba Nkulu in the Katanga Province and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
    After earning a Diploma from theological Training at Likasi, I was sent and arrived at Musao the 7th of September 1990. Statistically Musao Parish had five Christian families with a total of more or less twenty-seven church members children included. In August 30, 1996 when I left Musao, the population in the church increased dramatically. See the Table of Statistics below.

    Local Church Professing church Members Baptized Church Members Other Participants Total Members and Participants
    Musao 235 164 103 502

    After this short description we can explain how we reached people with the gospel of Jesus Christ that helped us to realize the results of afore mentioned statistics.
    2. How did we reach people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
    Let me first of all give a definition of evangelism as we viewed it. When we defined evangelism we included comprehensiveness as well as contact. Our Lord stated this comprehensiveness in the great commission:
    ‘’Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’’ (Matt.28:19-20).
    Evangelism is comprehensive. It is a preaching of the gospel in detail and in a thorough manner to every creature. There is no limit. We are to go into the entire world, starting with those who are close to us and work outwardly: family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, relatives of fellow church members, regular visitors to the services of the church, and the unchurched people. No kind of person is excepted. There is a priority. Jesus said: ‘’Do you not say, ‘Four months more and then the harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest.’’ (John 4:35). In harmony with the above evangelism is thus a process of telling people about Jesus and taking time to help them follow him. As we see in this commissioning of the church, evangelism is God’s will for the church. We agreed that it is a work of the local church to evangelize. God has designed the local church to be sufficient in carrying out its own work because Jesus wants everyone to hear the good news of salvation (Marc 16:15-16) and he has provided the gospel as God’s power to save all who believe (Ro.1:16-17).
    Having given this brief definition we can now see some elements we needed to fulfill the commissioning of the church or what our Lord has commanded us to do.
    3. The Elements for a successful Evangelistic Work.
    To fulfill the commission above mentioned, we needed three elements in a successful evangelistic work.
    1. A Plan for proclaiming or sharing the gospel with friends, family members and non-Christians, and people willing and able to implement that plan. We can see this later.
    2. A Prayer ministry that opened the doors for the gospel and rendered people receptive in spite of satanic opposition. From Rev.3:7-8 we learned that the Lord knows the true condition of our church, and that he will open doors for those that can be useful to him. We prayed that God will work together with us. To give us opportunities to do good for others (Co.4:3), the wisdom to make the most of those opportunities (Co.4:4-6) and boldness to say what needed to be said (Eph.6:18-20). That those we had on our list would have the opportunity to hear the truth and honest hearts to be open and receptive to the truth. We prayed leaning on this instruction: ‘’Ask me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession.’’ (Ps.2:8).
    3. A Community into which we could bring those who were interested in the message. In an evangelistic community, non-Christians see the gospel being lived out by Christians, and have the opportunity to have their own questions answered by more learned members if they so desire. They also are in a position to learn the basics of Christianity once they make the decision to receive Christ.
    Now we can look at the most effective evangelism method we have personally used to reach others with the gospel.
    4. Most effective Evangelism Method.
    The local church certainly has the work of evangelism to do. We first got into the ‘Education of evangelists’. There is nothing wrong with a local congregation training men and women to be gospel preachers (2 Tim.2:2). This led us towards a great awakening. We learned to lift Christ up so the sinner may discern his matchless love as he shed his blood for the sin of the world! ‘And I, if be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.’ (John 12:32).’’
    Second, although there are many ways to reach people with the gospel of Jesus Christ, we agreed the method of ‘’Personal Evangelism.’’ We asked church members this question: ‘’what was responsible for your coming to Christ and this church?’’ Their replies were:
    1. I had a special need-3% 5. I liked the Bible classes-5%
    2. I just walked in-3% 6. I attended a gospel meeting-0.5%
    3. I liked the minister-6 % 7. I liked the programs-3%
    4. I visited there-1% 8. A friend or relative invited me-79%
    What can we learn from a survey like this? First, it confirms that gospel meetings as traditionally held have lost much of their effectiveness. Second, it justifies church’s concern to pick its preachers carefully and to give special regard to the quality of its bible classes. Finally, the obvious point of the survey is that if church is to grow, it will be through the efforts of individual members. Preachers, programs, classes may help, but in most cases they will only maintain the size of the congregation. Such congregational efforts are worthwhile, however, for they can reach people with whom we might otherwise never come in contact. But the fact remains: The greatest potential lies with people who have some contact with members of the local congregation.
    Two things were needed to utilize contacts through members of the congregation.
    a. Concern for the lost by those members-cf. Matt.9:36-39; Ro.9:1-3; 10:1).
    b. Knowledge of how to increase opportunities to share the gospel with relatives, friends, neighbors, and others. On this point, Bible studies helped us to gain knowledge and confidence in using God’s word to win the lost.
    In relation to the previous point, let us examine the practical way we did personal evangelism.
    5. The Praxis of Personal Evangelism.
    We made a weekly plan of personal evangelism as follows.
    a). Friday Afternoon: Prayer evangelistic ministry.
    We prayed for those on our list. That God gives the increase when it comes to evangelism (1Co.3:6-7). The members had to evangelize as they have been nourished by the preaching and strengthened by the corporate prayer and worship of the church and encouraged by fellowship.
    b). Saturday Afternoon: Evangelistic campaign.
    Every member of the congregation became preacher who went about preaching personal conversion, and inviting people to services of the church. We strived to help people and make them disciples of Jesus. The children were trained by ‘’Child Evangelism Fellowship’’ to present the gospel using the Wordless book, five colors that helped to tell the basic gospel (Gold: who God is. Black: what sin is. Red: who Jesus is and what he did. White: how to become God’s child, and Green: simple steps in growth New Testament verses are also used).
    c).Sunday Morning: Worship service.
    Every member of the church was given his/her own pew where he or she could sit his/her guest down on that pew. We used to give all our guests or visitors a warm welcome with open arms. We prayed and made them feel at home in the church. After the meeting, refreshments would be served by a welcoming committee.
    d) Other Action steps we took
    .We made a point to get to know all visitors by name. We practiced hospitality towards visitors and visit their homes. We made a list of those we would like to see taught by the gospel. We limited this list to two or three souls. A list with too many and we would not be able to focus our efforts effectively.
    Finally, let us make some suggestions for implementation by the local church.
    6. Suggestions for Implementation by the local church.
    The gospel must be preached and applied to our own immediate family circle first and to the entire world. Part of our motivation for sharing the gospel with others is the vision of seeing the lost (2Tim4:2 and John 17:17) and the whole world (Mk.16:15-16 and Matt.28:19) find Christ and grow spiritually.
    Although there are a wide variety of evangelistic methods, the people in a local church must select the evangelistic strategies that are most suitable and effective in the context of their community. All are evident in scripture.
    In sum, evangelism is God’s will for the church. God wants everyone to hear the good news of salvation. It is a work of the local church to evangelize. There is no one way to evangelize. Just like every child is different, there is a different method for each of them. One method works for this one, but does nothing for the other. That is why we must follow the lord’s guidance every second.

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