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Preaching by the Numbers

A look at how many of us feel about our preaching

Editor's Note: In the first quarter of 2008, Preaching Today conducted a survey through Preaching Today Audio and NationalChristianPoll.com. The central purpose of the survey was to gauge how preachers felt about the effectiveness of their preaching. We were also able to gain insight into preaching styles, educational background, professional experience, and personal devotional lives. You can read the full results in a PDF file by clicking here. The editors asked Preaching Today editorial advisor Lee Eclov to offer his reflections on what he noticed about the results of our survey.

Putting on a brave face

Judging from this survey of 317 pastors, we preachers put on a brave face. Most of us believe our listeners grow spiritually through our preaching (92 percent), that we preach biblical sermons (83 percent), and that people come to Christ listening to us (79 percent). Most of us (75 percent) feel good about our preaching "often" or even "always." Overall, we feel that important things are happening, either "every time" or "over the long haul" (91 percent).

But then there are those pesky meddling questions about the time we spend studying, how many converts end up in church, or how we pray. The survey seems to play good cop/bad cop with us! Our doubts start to show. Our palms sweat a little. We get a little edgy. Or if we don't, we should.

All the talk of conversions in this survey leaves me reflective. Maybe it does for you, too. We are, after all, preachers of the gospel. Like Paul, we must implore people to be reconciled to Christ. I didn't so much think that I need to see more converts, as that I need to be more effective and purposeful about calling people to Christ.  


The heart of the survey tried to get at "Preaching Results" (pp. 5–9). That's why we preach, of course—to get results. One particular question (p. 5) asks: "In your opinion, what constitutes the positive, objective (observable) results that occur from your preaching?" (The bad cop put the italics on "objective.") We're given the option of answering "spiritual growth in individuals," which 92 percent of us checked. I would check that, too. But let's be honest: spiritual growth is pretty tough to measure objectively. Maybe this is a faith answer—evidence of things unseen?

I'm glad, then, that 69 percent of those surveyed often "feel good about the message's content and delivery … regardless of any objective results." I'm even glad for the 23 percent who say they only feel that way "sometimes." That's not bad for such a tough job—especially when 70 percent of us don't think preaching is our first gift (p. 3)!

I'm glad that so many of us believe important things happen when we preach. I'm among those who would agree that "nearly every time I preach, important things are happening in the lives of many of the people who hear me." But I also agree with the other choice: "Over the long haul, I think my preaching is helping people, though I don't see a lot of tangible or dramatic results." I heard once that tug boats move huge ships by bump—bump—bumping them where they need to go. That's my theory of preaching. The important thing that happens every time I preach is the "bump—bump—bump" without a lot of tangible or dramatic results. I would check "both of the above" on the survey!

Furthermore, it is only natural that we look for reliable evidence that our preaching is connecting—that something God-ward and God-full happens when we step up to preach. So we try to gauge body language and note-taking. We sneak a peek at attendance figures or how many come to the next prayer meeting. But we can take one positive e-mail or hallway chat and multiply it the way Jesus did the loaves and fishes into a chorus of sermon-blessed people. To some extent, I think that is fair. Haven't we read somewhere that a marketer regards one positive response as representative of oodles of other satisfied but silent customers? You hear the expression, "It's only anecdotal evidence." Me? I'm good with anecdotal evidence of effective sermons. Give me one genuine, thoughtful response to a sermon, and I go to my Sunday afternoon nap figuring that the whole crowd went home blessed!


Speaking of results, nothing in this survey jumped out and whacked me upside the head like the responses to the questions concerning conversions (p. 7). Of the preachers surveyed, 48 percent see conversions as "positive, objective results of preaching." It's not that I disagree; it's just that I had not thought to evaluate my preaching by that measure. I felt myself getting a little defensive when I saw that almost everyone but the rookie preachers—79 percent by my calculations—said that they saw conversions from their preaching every year. In fact, the median number of conversions was 11 per year!

To tell you the truth, I don't know how many—if any—were saved by my preaching last year. I know it's risky to say that to a bunch of other preachers. I don't say it with any pride. but it's the honest truth. I preach to a congregation of people I mostly know, who are mostly believers. From time to time I give a clear call to accept Christ, and sometimes I ask for the raised hand. But I haven't seen a hand in a long time. On the other hand—no pun intended—that doesn't mean my preaching doesn't result in converts.

I think of a friend I have who is a very successful church planter, a skilled and "relevant" expositor, and an evangelist. He told me about an elderly man he was going to baptize. The man's journey to Christ came through a friend who talked to him and brought him to church, through many sermons that kept bumping him toward the reality that the gospel is free and not earned, a booklet on that subject my friend had written, and a personal conversation. If my friend were taking this survey, should he count that man as a convert resulting from his preaching?

Another thing that mystifies me is that some preachers indicated that they see people converted all the time. Of those who took part in the survey, 10 percent said they saw 50–200 converts a year, and 5 percent said they saw more than 200. I'd like to talk to those guys! I confess I'm a little suspicious, but if even half of those people end up as regenerated believers, I'm in awe of that gift. Years ago, Billy Graham came to our city for a crusade. There was a youth emphasis one night, and thousands of teens were in attendance. I don't know how to say this, but I thought Billy's sermon was, well, awful. He used a Bible story that the kids didn't know, didn't connect the dots to the gospel very well, and just wasn't all that interesting. Nonetheless, boatloads of kids came forward to receive Christ. Go figure!

Recently, while reading Lectures to My Students, I came across a lecture by C. H. Spurgeon entitled, "On Conversion as Our Aim." In it he says to preachers, "Our great object … is, however, to be mainly achieved by the winning of souls. If we do not, our cry should be that of Rachel, 'Give me children, or I die.'" That made me think of the story about Spurgeon's conversation with the first student at his college—a Mr. Medhurst. Medhurst was complaining that he had been preaching for three months without knowing of a single soul having been converted. "Why," said Spurgeon, "you don't expect conversions every time you open your mouth, do you?"

"Of course not," Medhurst answered.

"Then that is just the reason you haven't had them!" Spurgeon said.

I don't buy that entirely, but I can't forget it either. All the talk of conversions in this survey leaves me reflective. Maybe it does for you, too. We are, after all, preachers of the gospel. Like Paul, we must implore people to be reconciled to Christ. I didn't so much think that I need to see more converts, as that I need to be more effective and purposeful about calling people to Christ. 

Preaching style

Let me back up and cover something else of great importance: preaching style. A strong majority—83 percent—said our sermons were biblical. Honestly, my first reaction was, What are the other 17 percent doing? Are they among the 20 percent who would not describe the Bible as either inerrant or infallible? Or did they just want to use their four choices for more specific answers? But back to the rest of us—defining a biblical sermon is kind of like observing spiritual growth. The surveyors gave us a lot of ways to define what we do, and we made a gallant effort. But limiting us to four choices cramped our style, I think. It isn't easy to describe how we come at the Bible. I presume most of us believe we're using approaches that best give the Bible its say. I respect my preaching colleagues who join me in struggling with the best ways to set forth the Bible in a way that produces spiritual growth.

I admit that I was troubled by the 34 percent who did not check "Christ-centered." How can that be? Paul said, "We preach Christ, and him crucified." I've just preached three months on the stories of Jacob, so I know well the challenge of preaching some texts where a straight line to Jesus isn't obvious. But we are Christian preachers. A friend of mine often reminds pastors, "A Christian sermon is one that would get you thrown out of a synagogue or a mosque." For that to happen, we have to preach about Christ. I know that it was difficult to choose from that list describing how we preach, but if "Christ-centered" doesn't even make the top four, we need a reality check!

I also thought it was interesting that only 35 percent characterized their preaching as "relevant." I don't blame anyone for avoiding that word. If I could only choose four of those descriptions, "relevant" wouldn't be my favorite. For me, that's a word dressed in clothes from Aeropostale, with an iPod plugged into its ears, an iPhone on its belt, and a wooden stool to sit on while it preaches. Maybe "Reverend Relevant" can preach, but he makes me nervous. But, of course, preaching must be relevant; it must relate to the lives of our here-and-now listeners. Sermons that don't cross the bridge from then to now don't much matter!


Another part of the survey left me squirming—the section concerning prayer (p. 10). I admit I didn't feel the choices were fair. You were only given two choices. The preacher either had a "dedicated time of prayer alone each day" or "short prayers throughout the day." I've got to think that the "each day" was a problem for a lot of us. I couldn't have checked that box. But neither do I only settle for "short prayers throughout the day." My friend Steve Mathewson wrote me about the matter: "I wonder what the answers would be if this same survey were given to evangelical pastors in sub-Saharan Africa or in Palestinian communities in Israel. I wonder if the percentages on the prayer question are acceptable, or if they reflect 'sheer prayerlessness' on the part of the western church."

"Short prayers throughout the day" is a good approach when you are preparing a sermon. I assume most pastors converse often with the Lord as they study: "Lord, I don't know what to emphasize here;" "Lord, I need an illustration—bad!" "Lord, I'm tired." But no preacher can be without a "dedicated time of prayer," even if preaching was the only responsibility. Short, on-the-run prayers seldom plead and ponder, seldom salt a passage deep into one's own soul, seldom are quiet enough to listen to the Holy Spirit, the Bible's best commentator.

Other reflections

Did you see where the average age of the folks who took this survey was 51 years (p. 13)? On average, we've been preaching for 18 years (p. 2). We preach 61 times a year (p.2). If you're like me and you are anywhere close to those numbers, we need to be careful of the rut. When we start preaching regularly, the learning curve is steep—a good 45 degree slope. But somewhere out there—say after five years or so—it seems to level out a bit. We find our routine, and we follow it predictably. If you spend 10 hours in preparation (p. 3), I suspect that's probably what you spent a few years ago. We use books about the same way as we have for years, and we illustrate pretty much like we always have. We take about the same amount of time to put the sermon together, and we preach about the same length of time. Maybe it's time we ramp up the learning curve again.

I was fascinated by the question that asked, "Have you ever had a preaching mentor who worked with you personally?" (p. 3). Of those surveyed, 61 percent said "never." One way we could grow as preachers is to develop a relationship with someone who knows what he or she is talking about when it comes to preaching. Why not ask them to give us a listen and critique us? Once you get to a certain age, finding a mentor is tough, since that seems to imply someone older and wiser. (It's the "older" part that gets tough.) But you probably know someone who knows what they're doing—colleagues who read about preaching, who take it seriously, who are good role models.

This survey also prompts me to think we should reevaluate the hours we invest in preparation. One possible reason some preachers need only a few hours is that the sermons are pretty predictable, pretty lightweight. I'll tell you this, if you can preach about Jacob wrestling with the angel of the Lord (Genesis 32) on six hours of preparation, you are probably missing something! The thorough study of a passage or a topic takes time. The preacher is like a man in a dark room looking for doors into the lives of my listeners. The hours are often long and unpredictable. What in your preparation really needs more time to be top quality? Where have you cut corners? What would you have to do to fix that?

Concluding thoughts

When I am among other preachers, I like the company. That's how I felt with this survey. I can't understand how some people answered the questions the way they did, but I love knowing that there is a company of preachers who huddle away every week with books, paper, and prayers, only to then come out and preach God's Word. I love being counted among them!

Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He writes a weekly devotional for preachers on Preaching Today.

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