I 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.