"Preaching isn't dead - but it doesn't motivate!" This is the view from the pew, according to survey results released on 11th January 2010. Only a small minority of the people questioned said that sermons frequently change the way they live.
Despite that, and surprisingly perhaps, congregations look forward to the sermon. Almost two thirds of those questioned said they do so ‘frequently’, another third said ‘sometimes,’ and over half the people questioned said that sermons frequently give them a sense of God’s love and help them to understand Jesus.
However, sermons seem to have comparatively little effect on Christian behaviour. Less than 17% said that sermons frequently change their attitudes towards others, or help them to look afresh at controversial issues or events in the news. Sermons, it seems, are better at helping people to reflect than at challenging them to act.
This research was commissioned for our 50th Anniversary. Our Director, Paul Johns, hoped these initial findings would kick start a wide ranging debate about the effectiveness of preaching today. "The digital age isn't killing off preaching, but what the survey suggests is that too much preaching is doing too little to motivate people to look at the world differently and therefore live in it differently. If that’s so, we have to question what we preachers are actually saying about the Bible and about contemporary issues, and how well we’re engaging with our congregations."
The research has been carried out by a team from CODEC, the research centre at St.John’s College Durham, led by Rev. Kate Bruce, Fellow in Preaching and Communication. She said,"The people we surveyed said they wanted sermons which are biblical, but also relevant to contemporary life and issues. And in a culture which values entertainment and likes stand up, over a quarter of them said they want preaching to be entertaining too."
The research dips into a number of denominations. However the researchers stress that this is a pilot study intended to lead to more extensive research into the state of preaching in UK churches.
The release of these survey results, this 'view from the pew', generated great interest in the media.
First an article appeared in the Sunderland Echo - whose main interest in the College derives from the fact that our partners at Durham University, who carried out the research on our behalf, are situated in their vicinity. They noted that "preachers are failing to inspire congregations." That article can be read here. But later they followed up with another article, after canvassing the opinions of local clergy in Sunderland - including former Preacher of the Year, Revd Paul Walker. This article can be read here.
Next off was BBC News who noted that congregations look forward to sermons even though most don't find it changes the way they live! Their article can be read here.
Then the United Reformed Church website quoted their own General Secretary, Rev. Roberta Rominger, as saying that "It really matters that those of us who preach put our heart and soul into it, to proclaim the Christian gospel and show its relevance for these challenging times". Their article is no longer available on-line.
Meanwhile, The Christian Post featured our survey in two separate articles: "How Will They Hear Without a Preacher?", written by R. Albert Mohler, Jr., can be read here and "Sermons Fail to Inspire Change in Believers", written by Christian Today's Charles Boyd, can be read here.
Then Times Online reported that "Christians still value preachers". Their article is no longer available on-line.
Next Church Times weighed in with an article titled "Preachers find congregations grateful but not galvanised", incorporating extended quotes from our Director, Paul Johns. Their article is no longer available on-line.
Telegraph.co.uk carried a report that "Sermons reach audiences that politicians could only dream about ". Their article can be read here.
And lastly The Baptist Times reported that "sermons are popular, but do not lead us to act". They also invited those of their readers who preach, to sign up to our Commitment to Good Preaching; but their article is no longer available on-line.