A new study suggests most who claim they’re searching for a new church place better preaching as the key factor that will help them make up their minds.
A new Pew Research study shows almost half of the adult population in the United States have searched for a new church, and the most common reason given for the search is moving to a new location, which makes perfect sense.
But when you pull aside those who have searched for a new church, 83% say the quality of sermons is the most important role in their selection, with “feeling welcomed by clergy and lay leaders” in a close second at 79%.
The style of services, presumably including whether it’s a “traditional” or “contemporary” (or “formal” or “casual” service) came in third at 74%.
What’s interesting here is the top reason people are likely to choose a church is an extraordinarily subjective notion.
I’ve attended churches where the most Bible-based sermon is presented in a manner that makes it difficult to stay awake. I don’t have ADD: I was tested for that years ago and it was decided it doesn’t affect me, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I was just a point or two below the threshold that would label me as having it. So when I’m sitting in a sermon, even one that follows the Bible to the letter, that is so boring that I start fidgeting in my seat, I’m probably not going to label the quality of preaching as very high.
At the same time, I’ve attended sermons in churches where there are moving strobe lights and fog machines presented in a visually exciting manner that kept my attention. But then later, as I processed — or at least tried to process — the message, I realized there wasn’t a great deal of substance there. Even when there are Biblical truths in the message, there’s not necessarily a real takeaway: nothing key stays with you. I’m probably not going to label the quality of preaching as very high in that case, either.
It seems to me that this leaves the possibility that a more “interesting” sermon that might include less Biblical truth than a more “God-packed” but slower-paced sermon could then be deemed as a “better” sermon.
What does it take to turn preaching into quality preaching?
In a 2002 article, Duane Kederman said his research turned up three primary factors:
- Communicational Excellence: A well-organized sermon one can follow with a clear main point.
- Biblical Faithfulness: A sermon well-rooted in the Bible.
- Transformational Power: A sermon that challenges or “stretches” the listener in a way that prompts change toward God.
Then there was this 2003 article from Luther Seminary’s Story Magazine that listed seven marks of a good sermon, which listed all of the above and then some. The most important I found in that list was item three: “A good sermon connects God’s Word to the lives of God’s people.” In other words, the message needs to reach us where we are so we can get to the place we should be.
I also found this article from six years ago titled “6 Qualities of an Effective Sermon” on SoundFaith. This article repeats several of the same points from the earlier sources, but also adds “authentic delivery,” pointing out the preacher “must be real” and that God should have spoken to him or her about that issue. (That’s a can of worms in my book: does God always “speak” to every pastor ahead of every sermon? Maybe, maybe not. But an authentic enough delivery might make that an unnecessary point to debate.)
I know someone who recently left a church after a new pastor took over, saying he “didn’t feel God was still moving in the church anymore.” You’d have to ask him to explain that further.
You have to weigh what makes better preaching ‘better’ to you.
There are plenty of resources out there to help you decide how to choose a church. Among the more common pieces of advice would be to avoid looking for a “perfect church,” since there isn’t one. The church is run by humans and humans are, by Christian definition, inherently flawed. The church you choose will, eventually, disappoint you. You have to know that going in. The challenge, then, becomes deciding when a disappointment is disappointing enough to go elsewhere. But expect imperfection: don’t let it scare you away.
You should also apply this to the prospective pastor: give it more than a single sermon. The day you pick to “audition” a pastor at a church you’re considering might well be an “off” day. It happens even to the best of preachers. Embrace the imperfection you may hear and ask yourself a bigger, more important question: even if this one sermon wasn’t everything you hoped for, could there be potential there? Did it speak to you on any level? If so, it might just be worth a second visit before making a decision. Or a third. Or even more.