Recent surveys suggest that the sermon – not the musical worship – is the main factor affecting the church attendance of US Christians.
In contrast, the quality or style of church music was comparatively unimportant. Forty-four per cent of Protestants called it a major factor, and just 29 per cent of Catholics said the same.
In a more general survey of Muslims, Jews and Christians, three in four of those polled said that the sermon was a major factor in their religious attendance. The least significant 'major factor' was quality worship music (38 per cent), 36 per cent of those polled said it was a minor factor.
So why is this the case? It's an assumption of many that, in an age where Christian music has expanded into a vast, hugely popular and prolific enterprise, the kind of worship music in church might be a key consideration for worshippers. But it isn't, and it's the sermon (often joked about as the most boring part of church) that holds the most importance for the average worshipper. Here are three reasons the sermon reigns supreme on Sunday.
1. Mixed messages
Contemporary culture is awash with preachers – they just don't all wear clerical robes. Watch any TV ad break, scroll the internet for a minute, read a magazine – everyone's selling something and promoting their vision of the world. Like any good sermon, their messages invite and aim to attract. They assume values about the world, usually some vision of the 'good life'. They may insist you need a sleek new vehicle to drive, or that you need to change your diet, your fashion or your friends to be happy. Hollywood offers idyllic visions of romance and fulfilment, and politicians too promote their vision of a better world.
It can all be too much. For the religious in particular, they want to know what God has to say about it all. The Sunday service may be one of the only chances God's word gets to be heard. For 10, 20 or 40 minutes, congregations hear a different vision of the world and the 'good life'.
2. The rare fruit of wisdom
Preachers will tend to spend hours preparing their words, studying ancient texts and ideas in advance of their address. When you hear it, you only have to sit back and receive the gift they have prepared. Admittedly some sermons may not feel like a gift. But the best are like fresh air, a rare opportunity to hear someone's considered, prayerful reflections on God and human existence. There's really no other context in life in which that happens, which makes sermons rather special.
3. Back to school
Hearing a sermon is a little like going back to school. Human beings are intellectual creatures, which means that we thrive on understanding new ideas. Some (especially preachers) are particularly geared toward this kind of thinking, but we all have brains, and we all want to learn and understand. The sermon gives a rare opportunity for an articulated, intellectual expression of reality and our place in it. The messages of popular culture and advertising are consumed more unthinkingly – they come with assumptions, but they don't stop to explain them. A good sermon can be profound because it enlightens, it explains our purpose in life, and gives us a story whereby we can understand the world. Like school or university, in church we learn together. We listen to God's word as a community and discuss it together, a radical rarity in our individualised society.
None of this undoes the profound value of music, children's work or different rituals and traditions in churches. Each plays a vital role in making the Church the Church. We're not just brains in a box, and so merely preaching alone wouldn't be right. Nonetheless, it's interesting that preaching seems to have such an obvious, and perhaps surprising, appeal in the lives of churchgoers. It may be an encouragement for some churches to reconsider their approach to preaching, especially if they're struggling with attendance.
As an ancient prophet once said: 'How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news' (Isaiah 52:7).
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