Preaching that Connects
By Thom S. Rainer
Normally, they may not hear many sermons, but once the unchurched begin to seek spiritual answers they hear every word of a preacher’s message.
When my research team and I interviewed the formerly unchurched, we asked two questions that engendered significant responses about pastors. The first of the questions was a straightforward query directly about pastors that could be answered with a simple yes or no: “Did the pastor and his preaching play a part in your coming to the church?”
Nearly all of the respondents (more than 97 percent) said yes.
The second question required a more subjective response: “What factors led you to choose this church?” The responses show that facts relating to the pastor and preaching were the most-often mentioned answers.
Without any prompting from our interviewers, the formerly unchurched told us nine out of 10 times that the pastor was key in their entering the ranks of the churched.
The formerly unchurched were unequivocal in their beliefs that preaching was pivotal to bringing them to Christ even though not all the unchurched hear preachers, especially on a regular basis. The way the formerly unchurched described their pilgrimage could be illustrated as follows.
On the rare occasions when an uninterested unbeliever heard a sermon, the formerly unchurched told us, the preaching typically had no impact. But when the believer began to seek religious truth, the sermons had some meaning. By the time the nonbeliever was an active seeker, attending church on a regular basis, the nonbeliever tended to hang on every word of the sermon, that is, “if the sermon was worth a flip,” a formerly unchurched person from Idaho told us.
What criteria determine if the sermon is indeed “worth a flip”? Preachers agree their messages must be passionate.
Preaching must be a passion
The leaders whose churches are reaching the unchurched are passionate about preaching. Most of them, when asked about the call of God in their lives, refer to it as a “call to preach.” For them, preaching is their primary activity and calling.
In our surveys of pastors of effective churches and pastors of comparison churches, we asked: “Which of the following tasks do you find most exciting and challenging? and least exciting and challenging?” The choices included:
administration; pastoral care; budgeting; personal evangelism; building campaigns; preaching; committee meetings; staff leadership; discipleship/training of members; visitation; future planning; goal setting; other (fill in the blank).
The pastors of the effective churches overwhelmingly voiced that preaching was their most exciting and challenging task. The contrast between the pastors of the effective churches and the pastors of the comparison churches is stark. Ninety-three percent of the pastors of the effective churches named preaching as one of their most exciting tasks compared to 70 percent of the pastors of the comparison churches.
The effective pastors’ passion for preaching is obvious. Their second most exciting task drops from 93 percent to 58 percent, represented by personal evangelism. Interestingly, personal evangelism was not named in the top 10 most exciting tasks by the pastors of the comparison churches.
Not many of the pastors of the effective churches or the pastors of the comparison churches rated preaching as a “least exciting task,” but the contrast is still evident. Only 2 percent of the pastors viewed preaching negatively in the effective churches; 17 percent did so in the comparison churches. Still none of the leaders of the churches rated preaching in their top three “least exciting tasks.”
Pastoral care, which included counseling, hospital visits, weddings and funerals, was the third least exciting task of the effective church pastors, but the most exciting task of the comparison church pastors. Personal evangelism, however, rated second in the most exciting tasks of the effective church pastors; but the same was the third least exciting of the comparison church pastors. The two groups obviously have different priorities.
The Acts 6 pastor
There can be little doubt that the pastors of churches that reach the unchurched are excited and passionate about preaching.
A Nevada pastor told us, “Nothing in ministry gets me more fired up than preaching. Quite frankly, I have trouble getting motivated for a lot of the pastoral ministry stuff I determined several years ago that I had to be an ‘Acts 6 pastor.’
Several of the leaders of these churches made reference to Acts 6:1-7. In that passage the Jerusalem church is confronted with the problem of inadequate ministry; the widows of Greek origin are not receiving food from the church, but the native Hebrew widows are. The apostles, instead of increasing time in ministry to unbearable hours, decide to spread the ministry to the laity, “whom we may put in charge of this task” (6:3).
What then will be the primary ministry of the twelve apostles? “But we will devote ourselves to prayer, and to the ministry of the word” (6:4).
Andy, a nondenominational church pastor from upstate New York explains: “My first calling is to be in the Word and to preach. And if I’m going to have enough time to do what I need to do in the Word, the people in the church will have to do most of the ministry.”
The argument to be an Acts 6 leader does have biblical merit. Acts 6:1 indicates three vital results of the unleashing of the laity to do the work of ministry while the leaders devote themselves to the ministry of the Word. First, “the word of God kept on spreading”. Second, more people accepted Christ: “the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem.”
But perhaps the most fascinating result is that the Jerusalem church began reaching “hardcore’ unchurched people. The text indicates that “a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to tilt faith.” The Jewish priests were likely among those with the most antichurch attitude.
Leaders whose churches are reaching the unchurched need no convincing of the primacy of preaching in their ministries. They were just as enthusiastic as their hearers.