The Pew Research Center has released a study about what folks look for when looking for a new church. Considering that half of U.S. adults end up looking for a new church at some point in their lives, this is a crucial study for understanding the vitality of the modern American Church.
So what are folks looking for when they look for a new church? According to the Pew study, church shoppers frequently ask several specific questions when finding a new church:
- “Is this church in a convenient location?”
- “Do I / we like the worship style?”
- “Does this church (particularly its leaders) welcome me / us when we visit?”
- “Does this congregation offer a good church school for kids?” (An especially important question for families with children at home)
These four priorities were numbers two through five most regularly cited by church shoppers.
The number one thing church visitors want, though, was clear: good preaching. More than 80% of respondents in this survey indicated that they insisted on quality preaching in any church they would consider as a new church home. Roman Catholic respondents listed preaching as a lower priority than other respondents, meaning that among Christians looking for a Protestant church (evangelical, mainline, or otherwise), nearly 9 out of 10 church visitors are more motivated to attend and become involved in a congregation if they hear the good news proclaimed well from the pulpit.
If the Pew research is correct, and good preaching really is the number one priority for folks thinking about attending our churches, then the American Church needs to have a serious conversation with itself about homiletics (i.e. the study of preaching). And that conversation needs to start now. Because, according to a great many of our most prominent church scholars, the state of American preaching has long been in a precarious spot and in serious need of renewal.
The call for renewal has been going for most of the past century. It began in earnest in the summer of 1928, when one of the most famous preachers of the era (Henry Emerson Fosdick) wrote that preaching had become, in a word, boring. At mid-century, Fred Craddock realized much the same thing, that those who listened to sermons often saw preaching as an irrelevant discipline incapable of speaking to the pressing social needs of the day. This realization caused Craddock to call for a new method of preaching, one based more on storytelling than on the academic and plain styles of preaching that had dominated Christian preaching since the late medieval era. This New Homiletic has dominated preaching studies since the 1980s, continuing to shape new generations of preachers. In recent years, new programs have been set up to explore the importance of preaching, in Evangelical, African-American, and Mainline church circles. Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota has even gone as far as to outline their definition of good preaching.
According to Pew, the number one thing that will grow the American Church is quality preaching. And for nearly a hundred years, preaching scholars have been working for renewal in our pulpits that will lead to better and more faithful preaching. Meanwhile, Christian denominations have stopped growing. If church shoppers really do want quality preaching, and church scholars have been pushing for an increase in the quality of preaching, then why isn’t the American church more robust than ever?
Some of this may have to do with the answer to the question, “What is good preaching?” Some sixteen centuries ago, St. Augustine of Hippo wrote that good preaching would proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ using rhetoric to teach, delight, and persuade hearers to follow Christ. Augustine’s description of good preaching is, more or less, still the working definition that Christian preachers use today. But how exactly do preachers gauge the quality of their preaching? How do congregations and denominations encourage quality preaching? And for that matter, what do church visitors consider quality preaching? As far as I can tell, the Pew study did not ask respondents to define what they meant by quality preaching. Meanwhile, pastoral evaluation processes are tricky and don’t always include faithful, in-depth sermon evaluation that could offer practical steps toward increasing quality. In other words, congregations have few (if any) mechanisms built into their lives that will result in the main thing that Pew has demonstrated will lead to church growth (i.e. good preaching).
We live in an era of extraordinary scientific understanding, when we use data collection and technology to more accurately answer questions that have vexed humanity since the dawn of history. Still, I have yet to read any comprehensive research that has used modern statistical modeling and scientific research to answer the question, “What is good preaching?” Until we, the American Christians of today, can answer and address that question, we face the serious risk of losing potential church folks who, rather than get rooted in a new church, just stop coming to church altogether. As our seminaries – the training ground of preachers for centuries – face decline and even closure, we must ask ourselves, now more than ever, how we will shape the current and rising generations of preachers so that the church of tomorrow might flourish. How will we go about defining good preaching and implementing that definition in sanctuaries across this nation, so that the Holy Spirit may renew and revive the American Church in the 21st century?
Rev. Dr. David Lindsey currently serves as the Senior Pastor of Little River United Church of Christ in Annandale, Virginia, in the Central Atlantic Conference.