Why We Shouldn’t Overemphasize (or Underemphasize) the Sermon’s Appeal to American Churchgoers

A new poll of Americans churchgoers by Gallup found what appeals to them most is biblically-based sermons. Naturally, everyone thinks this speaks to the preeminence of their own method. And many of their points are well taken.

A more interesting (and helpful) discussion, though, is what we should do based on these findings. Should we focus primarily on service planning, pouring a higher percentage of the budget into lights, A/V equipment, and screens? Should pastors ditch their three-point, Keller-like outlines and start listening to more Andy Stanley?

Before coming to any conclusions, it would be wise to remember what these findings actually are. Gallup was polling American Christian churchgoers, and its focus was asking them what was most appealing to them about church. As stated already, their answer was the sermon. But there’s an inherent danger in reading statistics like these.

The danger is that we over-(or under) emphasize the findings. Yes, Americans like their biblical sermons (and praise God for that). But does that mean the sermon should be the church’s primary focus? Hardly.

I can think of two reasons why we should be careful in overemphasizing these results.

Two reasons we shouldn’t overemphasize these findings

First, the church’s primary mission is making disciples that reach the world for Christ. By that metric, the church in America is not doing so great. Mainline denominations are shrinking. The percentage of Nones is on the rise. The number of people who share Jesus with the people around them is abysmal. The same people who are going to church less and almost never share their faith really like sermons, but apparently those sermons alone aren’t enough to encourage them to do their part in fulfilling the Great Commission. (Yes, this is painting with a broad brush, but that’s what we’re talking about – polls and research showing popular opinion and statistics.)

Second, the church shouldn’t make decisions about its practices based solely on what appeals to people. By all means, we should be adapting the gospel message to each generation and context, but that doesn’t mean we tailor our approach simply based on what appeals to them. If the average churchgoer almost never shares Jesus in their life, then should we really be basing our strategy on what appeals to them? Ice cream appeals most to my three children, but I don’t make parenting decisions based on that alone. I know they need to learn moderation, how to be kind and loving, how to have self-control. Making decisions solely with their priorities in mind might get them to like me, but it’s not going to shape their character. If I want what’s best for them, then I’ll involve them in activities that might appeal far less, like obeying their mother when she asks them to clean their room. I’ll still take them to get ice cream as a treat, but it can’t be the primary way they’re being shaped.

But as I said, the danger isn’t only in overemphasizing the sermon’s appeal to churchgoers, but underemphasizing it as well. Here are two reasons why.

Two reasons we shouldn’t underemphasize these findings

First, if biblical sermons appeal most to churchgoers, then church-planters and pastors had better be paying attention. Many in the missional church stream already downplay the importance of the sermon, but to do so is a mistake when we know its appeal. Regardless of the sermon’s importance in their spiritual formation (and I think it plays a significant role), its appeal to Americans is undeniable. So if we want to reach our communities for Christ, then we better be working as hard as we can to handle the Word rightly and communicate its Truth in a compelling way. Otherwise, there won’t be very many people to disciple.

Second, if the sermon appeals most to churchgoers, then this is the time we know we have their attention. I can’t overemphasize the importance of this: we live in an attention economy. Attention is money, and the world is working around the clock to make sure they get it. If Americans find sermons the most appealing part of church, then we should leverage their attention while we have it. That means our discipleship initiatives, mission experiences, serving opportunities, and much much more need to be highlighted during sermons. If you want people in a small group, talk about your own experience with one in an illustration. To take this further, the sermon content shouldn’t be relegated to the 30-45 minutes on the weekend. If that content is what is most appealing to them, break it down into discussion guides or devotional reflections. Edit it down into bite-size YouTube clips and send them to your people. Repurpose the sermon to engage people more, and along the way we might just find they learn it better and apply it more.

There is great value in the kind of polls and findings put out by Gallup and Barna and others. But there is also great danger. The task of the church is to discern what they might tell us about reaching and teaching the world for Christ. After all, the numbers change, but the mission stays the same.