Following the brief flurry in the blogosphere earlier this week, which greeted the news that over 96% of churchgoers looked forward to the sermon, (Times report here), Pete from CODEC (the research body which published the findings) has blogged at greater length about what the survey did and didn't say. He notes, after reading the comments on the Times piece:
There seems little surprise - even to the ridiculously high 96.6% approval rating. Actually the figure is not quite accurate (it should be 96.9%) or as good as this suggests because the actual report says that 63.7% 'frequently' look forward to the sermon, with another 33.2% 'sometimes' looking forward to the sermon. So, if you feel among the 4% (or rather the 3.1%) who don't look forward to your regular sermon slot and that lots of your friends don't either, then it might be that you and your friends identify more with that 33.2% who look forward to the odd highlight or special occasion - 'sometimes' looking forward. Startingly, the other 3.2% (rounding up issues?) 'seldom' look forward with absolutely no one (0.0%) saying that they never looked forward to the sermon.
My first thought on reading this that the figures might be down to many of the sample being in the Durham area, and therefore looking forward to the sermon on the off-chance that it might be Tom Wright guest preaching this week. More seriously, the research notes that sermons don't seem to have much impact on those who hear them. Moreover more of the impact seems to be introverted (e.g. sensing the love of God) rather than having an impact in how people live their lives or treat others.
the survey does give us some questions:
Why aren't sermons changing people's lives?
Why are people happier to reflect internally than to change their behaviour in response to a sermon?
What's the interplay between contemporary events and issues and the pulpit - and whyever has the church not got this right yet?
How come so many people seem to like preaching when the anecdotal evidence says that people find preaching boring?
My thoughts at the moment:
1. What is preaching trying to achieve? The primary task of the church is to make disciples (Matthew 28), but Jesus uses a number of means to do that, not simply teaching. If churches are relying simply on monologues to bring about life change then, short of an Obama or MLK in the pulpit, how much is really going to happen?
2. The revival of stand-up comedy as a popular public form of entertainment is a sign of where the sermon is perhaps going. The likes of Jeremy Hardy and Ricky Gervais can hold the attention of an audience for a couple of hours whilst developing an argument -it's the monologue form, a sermon if you like, but delivered in an entertaining way. The survey finds that Anglicans more than anyone else look to be 'entertained' by a sermon. Maybe we watch too much comedy on TV.....
3. It's a great opportunity for preachers, but easily squandered. You can almost hear the hiss of a deflating congregation when the preacher goes off into the clouds, or starts telling them off, or retreats into cosy phrases. Each sermon is an opportunity. I imagine the figures are also skewed by the fact that people stop going to church. How many people would carry on going to a church where they never looked forward to the sermon?
I've been reading a few books on 'home church' and base communities recently, where the sermon seems to be replaced with something much more interactive and applied. The danger of preaching a prepared text is that it never connects with the real lives of the people who are listening. Having said that, that's what I do most weeks, so I might have questions about the efficacy of preaching but perhaps I don't have the nerve to follow those questions through in practice to their logical conclusion.