Ethicsdaily.com recently reported the results of a survey carried out for the College of Preachers in England. This story, headlined "Sermons May Be Popular But Rarely Lead to Action", says that a survey of 200 churchgoers revealed that fewer than 17% say that sermons frequently change the way they live or help them develop a fresh look at controversial issues or recent events. The same study showed that 2/3 of people look forward to the sermon and over half say that sermons frequently give them a sense of God's love and help them understand Jesus. One of the conclusions that the College of Preachers has drawn from this research is that sermons are "better at helping people to reflect than challenging them to act" and that "too much preaching is doing too little to motivate people to look at the world differently and therefore live in it differently."
It should be noted that this is a pilot survey of only 200 people from 16 churches in England. It is hard by any means to declare this an extensive study. However, I still find myself confronting strong but mixed reactions to this story.
A lot of discussion and feedback I hear about sermons focus on the question of whether or not people "like" the sermon. To me, if we talk about liking a sermon, then we are not expecting a sermon to challenge us but instead we are expecting the sermon to be in line with our preconceived notions and ideas. This can become an issue when we talk about the ministry as a profession. I once heard another pastor say that he would love to work another job and only preach on Sundays so that his primary means of making a living did not come from the church. Then, he said, he could say what he really wanted to say on Sundays and not worry about the possible repercussions in terms of his means of making a living and supporting his family. I don't know if I share this exact same line of thinking, but there have definitely been occasions when I have found myself questioning whether or not I should say something in a sermon based on whether or not I think people will like it. Can preaching really result in changed lives if the preacher does not feel that he can speak honestly? Is the fear of possible repercussions real or perceived?
And should a sermon's purpose be to motivate action? I think a dangerous line is approached when we allow sermons to focus on motivating action because it becomes easy for the message to become about doing what the preacher thinks we should do rather than acting as we perceive God calling us to act. I think that the reflective role of the preaching ministry is therefore extremely important and should not be made inferior to the "call to action." Does this mean that the sermon should not point out specific actions that the Christian should take? No, but I think that this task must be held in balance with the reflective part of the preaching act. I hear some ministers talk about being less concerned with theology in their sermons and more concerned with "daily, practical" living out of the faith. I am all for that, but it is the theology that helps us have an understanding of why we should try to daily live out our faith in a practical manner. My concern is that a study such a this can cause a push to the opposite extreme rather than an attempt at proper balance.
Finally, I would love to take those same 200 people and interview their pastors, review the sermons that they preached over the course of the year. How many of their sermons included a "call to action"? My point is: a sermon is not just about the word proclaimed, it is also the proclaimed word heard. Is it that this task is being ignored by preachers, or is it that congregations aren't hearing it, or that it is not being presented well?
Just a couple of thoughts. I welcome feedback.