Research Focus

Who Needs A Sermon?

It never fails that when I am looking for something in particular, I manage to find something else I was looking for months ago.  Such is the case with interview notes I took in Colorado, Iowa, and Connecticut with 20-60 year old spiritual seekers.  These notes have been the missing piece in a puzzle that has frustrated me for the past three years.  They were part of the larger Seeker Study I did for the General Board of Discipleship, and they highlighted some interesting perspectives on preaching and proclamation.  These interviews — 71 in all asked non-church-affiliated Christian spiritual seekers to share their thoughts on the art of the sermon.  Two-thirds of the 71 interviews (48) were with women, and approximately the same percentage were Caucasian.  Twelve were of African-American, six of Korean, two of Puerto Rican, one of Japanese, and two of mixed ethnic heritage.  While this may not be overly important, there were some gender and racial/ethnic differences in responses — those these are correlative, not necessarily causative.  We discussed five questions:

  1. what is a sermon?
  2. what is a sermon for?
  3. what is the preacher’s role in preaching?
  4. what do you look for/desire/need from a sermon?
  5. what types of sermons speak to you in meaningful and/or transformative ways?

What is a sermon? — I expected many simplistic “what the preacher preaches” kinds of answers, but was very surprised to discover that most of the respondents had fairly thoughtful answers.  In short and in general, men were more interested in “truth,” in understanding God’s will and having clarity about right and wrong.  Women lean toward “guidance” and “meaning” rather than in answers and information.  However, among the racial/ethnic respondents, there tended to be a stronger belief in absolutes — that there is right and there is wrong, and that we need to know the difference.  Older respondents had a much higher desire to differentiate “right” and “wrong.”  Younger respondents were much more interested in meaning, relevancy, and defining positive life goals, than in questions of moralizing or absolute truth.  A sermon, at its best, should clarify, demystify, raise questions, and illuminate.  Where there are multiple readings and interpretations, a sermon should present them all fairly and objectively, with some guiding questions to help people make up their own minds.  Sermons that a dogmatic and declarative are the least appealing.  Absolutely no one likes sermons that state definitively, “this you must believe, or else!”  Sermons should be like topographical maps that help hearers explore — they should not be like prepackaged tours that lead only to predetermined destinations.

One interesting recurrent theme in the responses was discomfort and dislike of the current trend of “preacher as pal,” the kind of talk-show-host delivering the monologue in your living room. One quote that well represents this attitude is, “I want to be engaged by the message, not impressed with the messenger.”  The best sermons, it seems, are those that could be delivered by just about anyone — or even read in print.  Over half of the respondents said that what they didn’t like about sermons were the preachers, and a smooth, overly slick and professional delivery can be as great the kiss of death as a poor delivery.

Sixty-six of the 71 respondents said that they had no interest in “technological enhancements,” — that sermons did not benefit from PowerPoint or video or other modern devices.  Almost all said that technology could enhance the experience, but the majority found it distracting and all but two said that a poor use of technology was a sermon killer.

Respondents defined a sermon most often by stating what a sermon is not: a sermon is not a lecture.  a sermon is not a show.  a sermon is not a platform to show how smart the preacher is.  a sermon is not stand-up comedy.  a sermon is not a happy, feel-good “rah-rah” speech.  Culling through the pile of pages of responses, truly three recurrent threads emerge: A sermon is a reflection on God — it helps us think about God.  A sermon is a personal challenge — it raises a significant question about what it means to exist.  A sermon calls for some kind of response — it refuses to leave a person alone, but challenges some kind of change in thinking, believing, behaving, or living.

What is a sermon for?

Ultimately, a sermon serves a simple, very specific focus — to help people grow in their relationship with God and God’s creation, to understand God’s will and purposes, and to order their lives in productive, meaningful, and God-honoring ways.  Over and over again, those who love God but dislike “organized” religion say, “the sermon isn’t about us, but about us in relationship to God.”  One young man kept referring to “the God equation,” and said, “I am starved for anything that factors into the God equation — God + me + the world = why am I here?  I want to go be with people who are asking the same kinds of questions and are focused on the same kinds of answers.”  Almost three-quarters of the people I talked to align with this kind of thinking.  A sermon serves the purpose of helping people better understand God, better understand themselves, and better understand why God put them here in the first place.”  One fifty-something woman said, “I don’t have any question about God — I take as a given that there is a God.  I also believe in myself — I think therefore I am.  What I could never really get from church on a regular basis was, “So What?”  Why am I here?  What does God want from me?  Most churches I went to told me that my reason for being was to come to church, put money in the collection plate, attend Bible study and work in the kitchen whenever we had a supper.  If that’s why God put us here… well, God needs to get out more.”

What is missing in most sermons — according to this small sample — is challenge.  It is fine to offer comfort.  It is great to offer knowledge and understanding.  It is great to offer encouragement.  But for 80% of this group, unless a sermon is promoting change and growth and an active, tangible response, it fails to serve its purpose.  “I can listen to books-on-tape if I want innocuous self-help, I’m a good person kind of stuff.  I haven’t heard a sermon in the past few years that I couldn’t hear the exact same thing on a TV talk show with Dr. Phil or on talk radio.  It’s kind of like everything has sunk down to this superficial, low expectations level.”  Another person said, “It’s very simple for me.  I am really busy and I don’t feel like I have time to waste.  Anything I do, anywhere I go, I ask one question: what difference did this make?  If it made a difference, I go back; if it didn’t, I’ll go do something else.  That’s why I stopped going to church.  Sitting through worship on a Sunday morning didn’t make any difference — or rather, I should say, the difference it made depended on me, and I don’t need to go to church to develop a strong relationship with God and other Christians.  Anything I can do as well or better on my own, that’s how I’m going to do it.”

Sermons are means to ends, not ends in themselves.  Oner insightful young woman observed, “I never think in terms of ‘was that a good sermon?’  Just like if I fix a good meal I don’t think ‘that was a really good pan I cooked it in or that was a killer spatula I used.’  The implement isn’t the point.  What happens because of a sermon or Bible study is the point.  Sure, you want to use good tools, but the best tools in the world are wasted if what they produce is crap.”  The sermon is a tool.  The sermon is a resource for growth, development, and performance.  The sermon is never the point.

The Preacher’s Role in Preaching

Almost everyone agrees — if you really like the preacher, you tend to like what the preacher says.  But for some this is as much a danger as it is a positive.  “Too many people give over their responsibility for their own spiritual development to church leaders, and that is frightening,” shared one 60 year-old woman.  “When I was younger, I went to a church with a great preacher, and when he went to another church, we followed him.  We had no real connection to the church, we just liked this preacher so much.  One day he came into church and told us all that he lost his faith and that everything he’d told us for years was a lie.  It almost destroyed my faith.  I will never give another human being that much power again.  It took me year’s to realize that he was just a disillusioned man with his own opinion.”  A large number of people who love God and Jesus the Christ but not “church” reflect that they feel preachers “get in the way” too often — that many pastor’s bask in the spotlight and love being the center of attention.  This gets in the way of good preaching.

The preacher is pivotal.  Good preachers can make a sermon “work.”  But a good preacher is not just a good speaker or presenter.  At least half of the respondents shared that the best “sermon” they ever heard came from untrained, non-professionals.  Personal witness and testimony from other laity provided example after example of a “good” sermon.  Authenticity, personal impact, sharing the “concrete” rather than the “abstract,” being vulnerable, passion — these all factored into “powerful” sermons, and they were direct extensions of the preacher — clergy or lay.  The concept of “authenticity” came up in many conversations.  Preachers are paid to preach — it is their job.  There is a strong sense of, “do as I say, not as I do,” to the professional preaching practice.  “I am unimpressed by a preacher who preaches on tithing who doesn’t give, or a message on the importance of risk-taking missions from a preacher who’s never been on a mission trip.  I want integrity, and I want to be inspired by someone who is sharing from experience and personal conviction, not someone who reads about things in books,” complained on respondent.  One woman summed up many people’s thoughts by saying, “I want to forget that there is even a person up front speaking.  I want the narrative to sweep me up and suck me in.  I want to be so engaged by what is being talked about that it doesn’t matter who is saying it.  I want it clear, I want it simple, I want it compelling.  That is what is so amazing about Jesus as he is presented in the gospels.  It is almost as amazing what he didn’t say, as what he did.  He forced people to engage and work out things for themselves.”

The old “window, not a mirror” concept came to my mind many times during these interviews — that the pastor should seek to be transparent so that people might see through the words to God, and that we should be careful not to make the message all about us.  “I want to grow personally, but if I go to church it’s more than that — I want to grow in relationship to God and to become more closely who God wants me to be.  I stopped going to <church> because, while it was helping me be a “good person,” I don’t think it was helping me be a real Christian.  It kind of bugs me that the pastor of the church is so popular.  It really is all about him in <church>.  I want to find a church where it’s really all about God.”

What Do We Look For, Desire, Need From a Sermon?

Invitation, invitation, invitation — invitation to know God better, invitation to grow in faith, invitation to act on what we are hearing and learning.  “It’s like exercise — I know I need it, I know it’s good for me, but I also know I won’t do it regularly unless someone keeps after me.  I think of a sermon like that — the preacher is a kind of personal, spiritual trainer,” one young man commented.  Sermons need to challenge and require response of some kind.  A good sermons asks hearers to DO something.  Sermons should irritate in a positive way.  “I want a sermon to make me a little uncomfortable, to make me think – ‘hey, there’s something I should be doing that I’m not,’ or ‘I could be doing better in this part of my life.’  Most of the churches I have been part of have been so scared to make anyone uncomfortable for fear they would leave, that I can’t remember the last time I was challenged.

Practical knowledge and transformative wisdom.  “I don’t know enough about God.  I don’t understand ‘theology.’  I need a better grasp of the big picture.  Churches assume I already have that, and most sermons just muck around in the details.  I need to know God better and understand God’s will better.  I need encouragement to become the person God wants me to be.”  This series of statements sums up a large number of comments.  Sermons help most when they equip people with the tools of the Christian faith, explain how they can be used, then train people and encourage them to practice using them.  While this may sound simplistic, it is a widespread desire and hope.

There is an intense hunger to know God.  Fifteen different people (21%) used food analogies to help describe want they look for from a sermon.  “I am starving to know God.  I can’t get enough.  I can’t wait to sink my teeth into real substantial spiritual food, then I get rice cakes and water at church.  It is very frustrating.  I have better conversations about God at work (I do construction) than I do at church.  How f***** is that?”  “When I can to I was a newbie, a baby, and infant spiritually.  I really needed milk and super soft food.  But I have grown quite a bit.  I may be still a spiritual child, but I am ready for solid food.  I stopped going to my church and I looked around.  Really, all I could find offered was formula and soft-cereal.  I finally starting eating solid food when I got out of the church and found other Christians who really want to make a difference in the world.  I am so grateful for what the church fed me when I was new, but no one can live on that forever.”  ” My church feeds us, but it is all sugar and fat and carbs and seasoning — both figuratively and physically, if you’ve ever come to one of our meals you know what I mean.  I never knew there were three thousand different kinds of potato salad until I became a Christian.  When I felt my spiritual arteries clogging up, I knew it was time for a change.  I am so much happier in my faith now that I am out of the church, I can’t tell you.  A diet of prayer, Bible study with friends, and weekly mission work is the best diet on earth for a healthy Christian!”

What Sermons Speak Best?

Authentic, personal, real, concrete, practical.  When hearers leave a sermon saying, “I learned this about God, I learned this about my relationship with God, and I need to make a decision about how I will live,” then 87% of the survey sample feel that the sermon was worthwhile, and they would be likely to return to hear a second.  “I don’t want to walk away from a message and only be able to say, “I liked it,” or “I thought that was well done,” reflected one middle-aged woman.  A slighty-younger man echoed her sentiment, “The worst insult I hear in church is when people shake the preachers hand and say ‘Good sermon, preacher!’ when they don’t even know really what he said.  Too many people judge a good sermon on ‘was it short, was it entertaining, and could I hear it?’  There’s a lot more to a sermon than enjoyment.”

Spiritual seekers are simple creatures — they want to be more like Jesus… and they are willing to give their time and energy to anything that helps them do this.  When sermons promote this cause and hearers can leave feeling like they have received help in their journey, the sermon was “good.”  However, if the sermon doesn’t connect their spiritual journey to the larger story of God and God’s will for creation, they tend to see it as a waste of time.

This anecdotal project is just that — it is not good, thorough research, but a pool of information that raises enough questions to warrant good thorough research.  In 2005, while I was doing this research, I had opportunity to share the information in one of our annual conferences.  I was meeting with clergy one day, then meeting with a larger group of clergy and laity the next day.  The response was interesting.  When I had the clergy alone, there was a high level of defensiveness, and many preachers argued that these responses were a minority sample and not representative of the mainstream.  Clergy were all too willing to dismiss the findings and ignore the implications.  That is, until the laity joined them the next day.  Then, a majority of lay people INSIDE the church said they felt many of these things as well and that is was only due to relationships and meaningful outlets for their own faith that kept them in the church.  You could have knocked most of the clergy over with a feather.  So, there is obviously something here to learn and reflect upon.  MAny leaders in the church simply assume that worshipers and growing Christians “need” sermons preached to them.  But the question may not be “who needs a sermon,” but what kinds of sermons do people need, in order to grow in their relationship with God, Jesus Christ, and the whole human community?”


Moist & Methodist: Baptism in The United Methodist Church

Of the researchstudies on spiritual practices in The United Methodist Church that were suspended when my job got eliminated at the General Board of Discipleship the one I was most disappointed by was our look at baptism.  Following twelve years after the adoption of “By Water and the Spirit” by our General Conference, this research offers both a snapshot of how United Methodist leaders view and understand baptism, as well as a way of seeing what impact our denominational study in the 1990s has had.

Our initial survey included 471 United Methodist pastors, divided into three categories:  pastors having served for more than 20 years (212), pastors having served 7-19 years (141), and pastors serving less than 7 years (118).  This arbitrary division was set in place to see if thinking and/or practices about baptism have shifted in the past two generations.  Interestingly, a few distinct differences do emerge, though no firm conclusions can be drawn based on what we learned.  Also, we kept track of pastors who came from a faith tradition other than United Methodist or its antecedents to track theological differences.  These were less pronounced and virtually inconsequential.

Additionally, a survey was conducted of 1,655 laity leaders across the denomination concerning their understanding of baptism.  Special effort was made to create a diverse response pool, and if anything we erred on the side of both racial/ethnic and age minorities.  The percentages of African Americans (14%), Hispanic/Latino (13%) and under the age of 40 (58% — we especially wanted to talk to people who have had children baptized more recently) are all much higher than either church or national demographic ratios.  Based on the consistency of responses across all ages and races, we believe there is negligible bias.

That said, the fundamental conclusions are dramatic and simple.  98.3% of the total sample — both clergy and laity — believe that baptism is an essential and non-negotiable aspect of the Christian life.  Baptism is a must for anyone wanting to be Christian.  No pastors and only 36 lay people say that baptism is not necessary in order to be a Christian.  However, why it is important varies greatly among clergy and laity.

Clergy are almost evenly divided into three main understandings of Christian baptism:

  1. it is a rite of initiation into the Christian life conferred on the individual as God’s blessing, and once offered can never be rescinded. (165, or 35%)
  2. it is a rite of initiation into the Christian life conferred on individuals by a faith community which receives the person into fellowship and promises nurture and support for the Christian journey.  (160, or 33.9%)
  3. it is a form of “spiritual Scotch-garding” that protects the individual/infant from evil and sanctifies the person as a child of God.  (146, or 30.9%)

Both 1. and 3. above define baptism as an act done for an individual (65.9%), not fundamentally as a sacrament of a community of faith (33.9%).

On the laity side, #3 shifts to the top spot by a huge margin.  The basic understanding of baptism is as spiritual protection for infants.

  1. it is a form of “spiritual Scotch-garding” that protects the individual/infant from evil and sanctifies the person as a child of God.  (1,175, or 70.9%)
  2. it is a rite of initiation into the Christian life conferred on the individual as God’s blessing, and once offered can never be rescinded. (345, or 20.8%)
  3. it is a rite of initiation into the Christian life conferred on individuals by a faith community which receives the person into fellowship and promises nurture and support for the Christian journey.  (135, or 8.1%)

What does it mean when only one-in-twelve of our lay leaders see the sacrament of baptism as a corporate (rather than an individual) experience?  Our baptismal services are very clear that there is a mutual vow made before God and with one another.  Both the newly baptized and the community of faith bear responsibility, each to the other.  The lack of understanding appears simply explained:  less than ten percent (159, or 9.6%) of active church members remember any teaching being offered to the congregation about the sacrament of baptism.  (Compare this to the 131, or 27.8% of clergy who claim that they teach the congregation about baptism on a regular basis.)

Further confusion and lack of clarity may rest in some of our general approaches to baptism:

  • while 80% of pastors require a meeting with a family prior to infant baptism, only 46% do a sit-down orientation and explanation of what baptism is and means.
  • 76% of pastors report that they will baptize any child, whether the family has ties to the church or not; 96% will baptize any child related to an existing church member (though the child and his or her family may have no direct ties); only 14% place any kind of expectation on the family of the child to be baptized that they should become active or involved in the community of faith.
  • 44% of pastors say they will do a baptism outside of the church; 51% say they will do a baptism apart from a normally scheduled service of worship; and 57% say they will do a baptism without any other member or representative of the congregation present.
  • 79% of pastors do not differentiate between “baptism,” “christening,” and “dedication.”  60% of pastors will receive gifts, payments, or “donations” for baptisms (though three-quarters of those report that this only applies to people/families not affiliated with the congregation).
  • There is a clean 50/50 split between pastors who fully explain baptism to adults, and those who will baptize and receive into membership “anyone who responds to an open invitation.”
  • 97% of clergy and laity were baptized as infants or children; 95% do not remember receiving any instruction about baptism at any time in their life.  Clergy learn about it in church and seminary as part of their training; laity learn what they know by participating in baptisms over the years.
  • The concept of “spiritual Scotch-garding is pervasive.  9-out-of-10 clergy and laity confess that they worry about the souls of the unbaptized, and they believe baptism affords some measure of spiritual protection.
  • Interestingly, older and younger clergy are least likely to carefully explain the meaning of baptism or to require any kind of involvement in the community of faith by the family of the infants.  The clergy serving 7-19 years take the most time explaining baptism, and they are the most likely to tell a family that they cannot “do” their child for them when the family has no real interest in providing Christian nurture and support for their child.  The longer a clergyperson has served in ministry, the stronger the sense of baptism as “spiritual Scotch-garding” (as you can tell, I love this term…)

How is it, a decade after our denomination adopted a very clear, concise and theologically balanced statement on baptism that a large majority of our Christian leaders hold views that are starkly at odds with our core beliefs?  How is it that one of our two sacraments is primarily viewed as a personal, private, and individual act (or a family act) instead of a celebration of the community of faith?  Let me be clear: United Methodists love baptisms.  They love babies, they love the symbolism, many go to great lengths to make the experience memorable and “meaningful,” but for the vast majority it is a one-time, single event — done, then over.  A significant number of infant baptisms are conducted where the child and family are never seen again.  Only 10 percent of our churches have a structured, intentional process of follow-up for baptized infants and their families.  More than half of the pastors do not even print baptismal certificates any longer (though 70% offer a token gift to the family, usually a flower) and only half keep a registry of baptized infants in the church records.  Most do not keep contact information updated on families of baptized infants after the baptism occurs.  Everyone says it is important — vital, even — but how important can it be when it is conducted in such an off-hand manner?  Sadly, almost 5% of the clergy responded that they were speaking in general terms — they hadn’t conducted a single baptism in 5 years or more.

This is a study I would have loved to continue.  The brief, initial responses were surprising and raised more questions than they answered.  I was able to do almost no follow-up by phone, working only with survey data and open-ended written answers to a series of questions.  I initially thought what we found was too bleak and unrepresentative — until I started sharing the results with leadership groups around the church and found that people in the midwest, southeast and northeast all agree that it’s pretty accurate.  A few folks have vehemently argued that this isn’t true of them, that baptism is one of the most important things they do and they take it very seriously.  I applaud them, but I am afraid they are a silent minority.  Very few like them appeared in the initial response.  Some have claimed that we should have limited our research to “worship leaders” or “Christian educators,” but these are small segments in the church, and all this would accomplish is to skew the findings in the other direction.  No, this provides some evidence that baptism is a beloved, but deeply misunderstood, practice in The United Methodist Church, providing us with yet one more sterling opportunity to educate, inform, and inspire our members and those we serve.

Within the next couple weeks, I will attempt to post a short series of articles pulling all the pieces of research together — on worship, prayer, the sacraments, Christian education, evangelism, and stewardship — and see what the composite looks like.  At first glance, it isn’t pretty, but on deeper analysis, there are some pretty clear directions and challenges that emerge that any United Methodist congregation can begin to address.  As always, your thoughts and comments are greatly appreciated.


Holy Communion in The UMC

For the past four years, I have been researching the practice of the means of grace in United Methodist congregations.  Here is a report from 2006 examining attitudes and understanding about Holy Communion in The United Methodist Church.

Broken for You… But Definitely Broken

The Celebration of the Lord’s Supper in The United Methodist Church

kneelcommunionYou might think that people who do something repeatedly over a period of years would come to know its practice and meaning intimately.  In the case of the celebration of Holy Communion, you would be wrong.  Each month (the preferred schedule for the institution of the Lord’s Supper in United Methodism) millions of worshipers in our congregations participate in one of the two seminal sacraments of our faith.  But what exactly does this “holy mystery” mean to those who partake?  For most, apparently, it remains a mystery.

From December 2005 through July 2006, 1,200 United Methodists (200 clergy, 1,000 laity) were surveyed to better understand the perceptions, attitudes, beliefs, and understanding held by those who celebrate communion.  961 surveys were completed (163 clergy, 798 laity) and a series of phone interviews followed with 95 pastors and 247 lay people from the survey sample.  What follows is a brief summary of our findings and a series of questions yet to be explored.

All participants were asked to rate the importance of participation in the Lord’s Supper as a spiritual discipline/means of grace.  They were given five options: essential, important, not very important, unimportant, and don’t know.  Twenty-one (13%) clergy said it is “essential,” with one hundred eleven (68%) saying it is “very important.”  Two troubling results were the eighteen clergy (11%) saying “not very important,” and the thirteen clergy (8%) who responded “don’t know.”  At least none said, “unimportant.”  This is not so for laity.  The celebration of the Lord’s Supper is much less important to laity than to clergy.  Communion is “essential” for 72 of the laity (9%), “very important” for 141 (18%), “not very important” for 219 (27%), “unimportant” for 135 (17%), and 231 (29%) responded “don’t know.”  For 2-out-of 5 of our lay people, communion simply isn’t important, and almost another third don’t know if it’s important or not.

An open ended question asked repondents to explain the meaning of communion.  Clergy articulated answers both historically accurate and theologically defensible 91% of the time, but as to its significance in the lives of Christian believers, things get a little fuzzier.  About ten percent of our clergy (16) are closet Catholics, believing that the elements of bread and juice are transformed into the very body and blood of Jesus Christ.  Thirty-one pastors (19%) explain that communion is not something we do for God, but something God does in us.  What that something is varies from “uniting us as Christ’s body” to “forgiving our sins,” to “connecting us to the Gospel story,” to “transforming us from believers to disciples.”  Eighty-five (52%) describe the practice as a “sacrament,” and explain it as a ritual of the church that gives us our identity.  Another forty-four (27%) say it is a symbolic act, done in “remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice for us.”  (Some pastors gave dual answers – so the total is larger than 100%).  Ultimately, the answers given are reminiscent of the blind men and the elephant – each describing that part of the whole that is most meaningful to them personally.  One note: This Holy Mystery, adopted by the 2004 General Conference has yet to make much of an impact on our understanding of Holy Communion in United Methodism.  Most of the clergy are aware of the resource, two-thirds have a copy, but fewer than one-in-twelve (8%) have read it.

communionOn the laity side, “a ritual of the church” is the answer of choice to describe the meaning of communion – 347 of the 798 (43%) offered some variation of this answer.  Another 19% (152) take the Roman Catholic option, believing that bread and grape juice become the actual body and blood of Jesus. About ten percent of respondents choose “an act of remembrance,” and another ten percent say it is “an act of solidarity.”  The remaining nineteen percent are all over the theological map – from “a monthly practice of church members,” to “a Christian vitamin pill,” to “an outdated, ancient, and irrelevant holdover from a pre-modern form of the Christian faith.”

We asked people if they “look forward to Holy Communion.”  On the clergy side, 40% look forward to it, 26% do not look forward to it, and 34% have no feelings one way or another.  Of the 1-in-4 who do not look forward to it, the primary reasons given are that it is a hassle, it makes the service run too long, it causes a drop in attendance, and too many people just go through the motions.  The laity are equally divided in thirds: 31% look forward to it, 35% do not, and 34% do not care either way.  Seventeen percent of laity respondents report that they often choose to stay home when communion is being served.  The number one laity complaint about communion is that it makes the worship service too long.

We asked if the overall church experience would be diminished if the church stopped serving communion.  Seventy-one percent of clergy said yes, but an additional sixteen percent said there were so many other important and meaningful practices in the church that communion wouldn’t be missed.  Thirteen percent report that overall, people’s experience of church wouldn’t suffer due to the elimination of the Lord’s Supper.  On the laity side of the question, only a handful – 14% — believe that the fundamental nature of the Christian church would suffer if we stopped offering communion.  For eighty-one percent of the sample, it would make no real difference to their faith were they to stop celebrating communion.

One other question posed to all respondents was “does celebrating communion make you feel closer to God?” For clergy, 86% say yes and 14% said it makes no difference. For laity, 62% feel closer, while 38% feel no different.

This summary reports a very cursory survey of United Methodist’s attitudes and understandings of Holy Communion.  We did not cultivate a representative or statistically significant sample.  It was decided that this was not a fruitful avenue for further exploration at this time.  However, I believe it raises some important questions, and while it may reflect my own personal bias, I believe it points to a theological identity crisis that does indeed invite further study.

Some of the questions I believe need answers:

  • How do we teach church members and visitors about Holy Communion?
  • Why does the Lord’s Supper hold such low significance for our communities of faith?
  • What is the basic understanding of “sacrament” in The United Methodist Church?  (see my companion report on Baptism in The UMC.)
  • What is the role and responsibility of the ordained leader to communicate the importance and significance of Communion?
  • How has our understanding and practice of Holy Communion arrived at the state it is in?


What follows is a report first published in the fall of 2008 concerning the spiritual discipline of prayer in United Methodism.

The Place of Prayer in United Methodism

Results are beginning to arrive from the truncated research project on the place of prayer in our United Methodist congregations.  Though the initial response only represents 88 United Methodist congregations, it does include a broad representation of Anglo, African-American, Hispanic-Latino, Korean and Chinese participants, as well as children, youth, and adults young, middle, and older.  88 congregations, and the approximately 950 individual participants, hardly comprise a representative sample, but they do provide enough interesting information to warrant further inquiry and study.

Partnering with conference leaders in all five U.S. jurisdictions (no Central Conference congregations are in the sample), a survey on prayer went out to approximately 500 United Methodist churches.  88 congregations returned the survey and participated in follow up interviews and a second-level survey (Survey Monkey rocks!).  The initial survey asked five questions:

  1. On a scale of 1 to 5 (one being “not important at all,” five being “extremely important”), how important is prayer to the formation of Christian disciples?
  2. Does your congregation have in place a process in place to teach people to pray?
  3. Is daily personal prayer encouraged in your congregation?
  4. Does your congregation have an accountability process in place that encourages everyone to pray?
  5. Is prayer an essential part of the decision making process in your church?

Here are some of the findings from the initial survey:

  1. 100% of the congregations identified prayer as “very important” or “extremely important” to discipleship formation.  (Whew!)  The range of scores was 4.15 to 4.88.  This indicates that there is no question in the minds of United Methodists of the centrality and importance of prayer.
  2. Now it gets interesting.  16% of the congregations report having a process in place to teach prayer (14 of the 88).  40% (35 of the 88) report having offered classes, workshops, or seminars in prayer.  Far and away, however, congregations simply pray, and assume people already know how.  44% (39 congregations) report offering no special guidance in prayer.  Interestingly, 71% of the churches that intentionally teach prayer are predominantly racial-ethnic.  Both Korean churches and the one Chinese church teach prayer.
  3. Once again, racial-ethnic congregations encourage daily prayer more than Anglo-Caucasian, but only 19% (17 of the 88) congregations regularly promote prayer.  In 75% of the churches (66 congregations) it is “assumed” that people know they should pray every day.
  4. When churches define “accountability” in prayer to mean they pray before meetings, in Sunday school, at Bible studies, and in small groups for spiritual formation, then 91% (80 churches) say “yes.”  However, when “accountability” is defined as checking in with people about their individual prayer lives, the total drops to 11% (just 10 congregations — eight of them racial-ethnic).
  5. When respondents defined “prayer as part of the decision-making process” to mean opening meetings with prayer, the affirmative response ruled the day — 100% of churches in the study pray before (most) meetings.  However, when we reframed the question to specifically mean that leaders and members were instructed and encouraged to pray before making major decisions, they almost flip-flopped (it is an election year, after all…), with only 8% (7 of the 88 churches) employing prayer as an essential part of the decision-making process.

Within two weeks of returning the initial survey, each of the congregations was contacted by phone for clarification and follow up questions.  Here are a few interesting pieces of information we gleaned:

  • we asked people in a dozen congregations to name the different kinds of prayer in which they engaged on a regular basis.  Respondents identified seven different types of prayer (praise/adoration, penitence/confession, petition, thanksgiving, intercession, reflective/meditative, and consecration).  Pastors average 5 types, laity averaged 3 types.  With an additional forty congregations, we listed the seven types of prayer and asked individuals to define each type.  We received 315 responses, with some incredibly creative answers, but most telling is the fact that 84% (265) could not define more than four of the seven types, and only 5% defined all seven.
  • Fewer than 10% of the churches report that they teach children how to pray.  It is assumed that children learn to pray at home.
  • Only 3% of 741 responses (22 people) indicate that they have been asked to pray in church in the past year.
  • Approximately 90% of respondents say that prayer in worship is either done for them by a preacher or lay speaker, or they do it themselves silently.
  • 84% say that, while they pray whenever they are in church, they cannot remember the last time they heard anyone preach or teach about prayer.

Before I go further, I need to say once more, this is not a statistically significant sample, nor was the initial survey and interview process conducted under strict research protocols and methods.  That said, just this superficial pass raises incredibly important questions about the place of prayer in United Methodist congregations.  If, indeed, prayer is essential to spiritual development and discipleship formation, it should be a teaching/preaching/shepherding priority.  And if these results are indicative of the larger UM population, the majority of our people have an incomplete, confused, or less-than-masterful grasp of prayer as a discipline.


Is this a problem or opportunity?  Yes.  It is a problem that cries out to be addressed.  When I conducted the study resulting in the book Vital Signs, one of the most compelling shared practices of the healthiest churches was a deep, wide, and regular immersion in prayer.  Pastor, staff, and laity leaders often met for nothing other than prayer.  On occasion, meeting agendas were set aside so that the leadership could engage in prayer.  Discernment, meditation, devotional reading and learning about prayer were normal aspects of the leadership processes in these churches.  Reminders and admonitions to pray were both visual and verbal — printed on posters, bulletins, and banners, as well as proclaimed from pulpit and lectern.  Prayer, in all its many and varied forms, defines the shared sense of identity in vital churches.


The opportunity rests in the fact that there are already wonderful resources in existence to help us teach, preach, coach, and support prayer.  With just a subtle shift of focus, we can bring the discipline and joy of prayer to the center of all we do in the church.  We can be agents of transformation, not by adopting the latest and greatest new fad resource, but by returning to the core — employing a resource everyone can afford and no one lacks.


This research focus ended before we had time to really explore all the implications, but it is very easy to test, to evaluate, and to correct and improve in any congregation.


12 replies

  1. Re: The section on baptism: No doubt the recently deceased Dr. Gayle C. Felton is weeping in heaven over the profound misunderstanding of the sacrament. As a layperson I have long been profoundly devoted to the sacrament of Baptism, and I think we don’t make enough of it when it occurs. “By Water and the Spirit,” in my estimation, is one of the finest theological documents the UMC has ever produced, and Gayle played a major role in its writing. I’m deeply disappointed that BWATS and its Eucharist companion “This Holy Mystery” are not required reading for UMC membership.

  2. Dan, I enjoyed this page on sermon research as well as Open Doors 101 – Part 2. Seems I need to get up to speed on the ReThink Church program offerings. Thanks, David White

  3. Dan, I enjoyed this page on sermon research as well as Open Doors 101 – Part 2. Seems I need to get up to speed on the ReThink Church program offerings. Thanks, David White

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