Common story: First ________Church gets a new minister – Pastor Joe. He’s not a very good communicator. People start leaving. Within two years attendance has dropped by half. Giving is down by a third. First Church descends into a malaise. Eventually Pastor Joe is fired and the search for his replacement begins.
A year later First Church hires a new minister – Pastor Daniel. He’s a great communicator. The church immediately starts growing. Happy days are here again. People love Pastor Daniel.
Why did this happen to First Church? Nothing else changed. The building remained the same. The worship times remained the same. The ministry programs remained the same. The key staff remained the same. The only thing that changed was the pastor. Yet First Church’s attendance and giving rose and fell in direct response to the quality of the preacher.
Can I be brutally honest? When it comes to church attendance, nothing matters as much as the ability of the pastor to deliver good sermons. If a pastor is good at his job the church grows. If he’s bad at his job the church shrinks.
Sounds unspiritual – but it’s true. It shouldn’t be this way – but it is. Each week is a referendum on the pastor’s ability to deliver an inspiring sermon.
Admit it – you’ve gotten into the car with your spouse and begun critiquing the sermon before you’re out of the church parking lot. Or you’ve been asked, “How was church?” What do you talk about? The sermon. Let’s be real: Protestants judge the quality of a worship service largely by the power of the sermon to move them. Nothing else comes close.
This is why the right minister can cause a church to sink or soar. I liken it to a football team: an NFL squad has 53 men, but the team’s fortunes rise and fall on the talents of one man – the quarterback. If he can deliver lots of touchdowns, the team wins. If he can’t, the team loses. Granted, the signal-caller must have good players around him, but as the Denver Broncos are seeing this year, a great QB means everything.
The same is true with church attendance. When it comes to numbers, nothing matters as much as the ability of the pastor to deliver engaging sermons. Preaching is everything.
It pains me to write these words. In an ideal world, what SHOULD matter is prayer, the presence of the Spirit, the love of the people for one another and the church’s ministry in the community. In that ideal world a church should be able to take out one preacher and install another without a hiccup.
And while we’re at it, why does the size of a church even matter? Jesus would choose a church of 12 sold-out disciples over a church of 12,000 passive pew-sitters any day.
We can argue these points until Christ returns, but this blog post is about attendance. Numbers. And when it comes to putting men in pews, nothing matters more than pastoral quality. Every other consideration pales in comparison.
This wasn’t always the case.
In medieval times there was only one church in a given area, or parish. If your parish priest offered boring homilies, you were stuck.
After the Reformation, sermons became the centerpiece of Protestant worship, as they are today. Some preachers were interesting, and others were boring. But until the 1950s, that didn’t matter much. Christians were mostly loyal to their denominations. If you were born a Methodist you attended the Methodist church in your area. If pastor was a lousy preacher you endured it. You never even thought of going to another church because you were Methodist and that was that.
Fast forward to today. Parishioners are no longer loyal to their denominations. Here’s my story: I was born and baptized Lutheran. As a young man I attended an Assemblies of God Sunday school. I came to know Christ in a Free Methodist Church. In college I joined a Baptist church, where I was married. I moved to Alaska and became a Presbyterian, and ten years ago I joined a non-denominational megachurch, which I still attend today (although I returned to a small Lutheran church this summer and loved it).
This kind of religious switching would have been unusual a century ago, but today it’s common. People move to new cities. They have automobiles that will take them to a church (and a pastor) they connect with. People are less loyal to institutions.
Because parishioners now have access to better preaching (live or through the media) they are less willing to put up with boring, rambling, irrelevant preaching. This has led modern congregants to evaluate their churches based on the sermon. They stay or go based on whether they “are being fed.” If the messages consistently lag, they seek out another church that offers them more.
Many of you are seeing red by this point. “Today’s churchgoers are so shallow. They treat God’s holy church like a product to be consumed!” you may be thinking. And you’re right.
But this is the reality in today’s world. People come to church expecting to receive something from God. If they don’t, they move on. Can we blame them? People came to Jesus – and they always received.
Although we may condemn them as consumers, today’s parishioners choose a church with great care. The decision to leave a church is often a difficult one, fraught with emotion, doubt and uncertainty.
I have a friend in Texas (let’s call him Roger) whose church planted “daughter church” in a nearby town. Roger and his family agreed to move to the daughter church to help it get started.
This “church plant” started with much enthusiasm but quickly began to sputter. Attendance dropped by 75% as the fledgling congregation struggled with its music and preaching.
Roger attended faithfully. He volunteered. He prayed. But the poor sermons exacted a toll on his walk with God. “Honestly, I wanted to be a good soldier and stick it out, but I finally had to be honest with myself – I was dying spiritually,” Roger said. “The worship was lifeless. The sermons just weren’t reaching me. In nine months I didn’t hear anything from the pulpit I hadn’t heard a thousand times.”
Roger eventually made the painful decision to abandon the church plant and return to the mother church. “I felt like a traitor,” he said. “But I’m regularly hearing from God again back in my home church. I know I’m being selfish, but I go to church to meet with God. If that’s not happening what’s the sense in going?”
Here are some questions for you to grapple with:
- What do you think Roger should have done? Was his decision to abandon the church plant selfish, or is it more important to do the things that help us grow spiritually?
- Why do we go to church? For our own benefit? For God’s benefit? For the benefit of others?
- Should a believer persevere in a congregation that does not meet his needs “because it’s not about him?” If so, for how long? Weeks? Months? Years? Decades?
- Should Christians be “self feeders” or should they expect to be fed Sunday morning?
- Should churchgoers expect to hear something new at church, or should they be content to hear familiar truths they’ve long known?
- Should believers “tough it out” in a church with lifeless preaching?
- Churchgoers give up a lot of time to come to church. Should they expect a return-on-investment for their time?
- Is it right for churchgoers to change congregations based on the quality of the preaching?
- Should a church live or die on the preaching ability of its senior pastor?
- If a Christian decides to leave a church, what’s the best way to go about it? Should he simply disappear? Or should he write a letter to the pastor explaining his reasons for resigning?
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