It doesn’t take an academic or congregational consultant to see that a lot has changed in the church since the end of World War II.
Fewer people attend and fewer people give than ever before. Worship styles have proliferated and dress codes have become more casual. Store fronts and theaters rival big-steeple sanctuaries as sacred spaces. Less Americans identify as Christians and more churches are closing every year than are opening.
But at least one fact has remained unchanged.
“Preaching has always had an important role in the church – from the very earliest days all the way up to today,” said David Hull, southeast region coordinator for the Center for Healthy Churches and interim senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Augusta, Ga.
“That’s true in traditional, classical settings and in contemporary megachurches,” he said.
And it’s especially true for Americans searching for new houses of worship, according to a survey published by The Pew Research Center in August.
The study found that about half of all Americans have shopped for a new religious congregation sometime in their lives, most often because of a move.
“Fully 83 percent of Americans who have looked for a new place of worship say the quality of preaching played an important role in their choice of congregation,” Pew reported.
‘So many talking heads’
Right behind at 79 percent was “feeling welcomed by leaders.” The style of services tallied at 74 percent and location at 70 percent, Pew said.
The telephone survey found that 56 percent of adults cited “education for kids” as important in searching for a new congregation. However, two-thirds of parents with minor children said this was important.
Only 37 percent of respondents said they looked online for information about a church before visiting. That figure jumped to 59 percent for adults under age 30.
One statistic caught Laura Stephens-Reed off guard.
“Seven-in-ten people who have looked for a new congregation say finding one was easy, while 27 percent say finding a new house of worship was difficult,” according to the study.
“What surprised me was the high number who said it was easy to find a new church,” said Stephens-Reed, a clergy coach and congregational consultant based in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
“A lot of folks I talk to struggle to find where they feel like their theology matches up and where they feel truly welcome and where their gifts can be used,” she said.
However, it is easy to see why preaching would come out on top in the survey, Stephens-Reed said.
“If you are going to visit a new church, the sermon is going to be 10 minutes to 45 minutes of the worship service,” she said. “That’s the most visible and consistent representation of that church to a visitor.”
Hull said it may take several visits before a visitor is able to discern whether a new congregation’s theology and personality are right for them.
“So one of the quickest and easiest ways to determine ‘if this church is for me’ is from the sermon,” he said.
While that won’t answer all the questions a visitor may have about a church, it will at least let them know if the pastor’s preaching will help in their walk of faith, Hull said.
“I think that is still so important when there are so many talking heads in so many realms,” he said.