Losing Members and Preaching Styles

Q. Our small church is losing members to bigger churches that are more modern and use more technology than we do. Should we think about putting a screen up to project songs in worship like so many churches do these days?

A. Whether or not to put up a screen is a complex question that should be approached from several different angles. But your question is really about how to gain members. It is unlikely that technological improvements alone will have much impact on that matter. Unless your members have a desire to invite and welcome new people into the church and are making intentional efforts in that direction, changes to your facilities or technology alone are not likely to make a difference. In fact, expenditures for technology could become liabilities without the accompanying changes in the people in your church.

That said, it could be that projecting songs or other visual images would aid your worship—for those who are visually impaired, those who have difficulty holding hymnals, and those who aren’t familiar with hymnals and are accustomed to PowerPoint presentations. But this is a subject to consider with care. For every person who can see a screen better than a book, there are others who can’t see the screen because of their height or the screen’s placement. Some people may not appreciate the screen if the songs projected have words but no music. Others don’t care for visual images, or simply don’t like change in worship. A change like the one you are suggesting should be processed carefully and with much conversation; it should be part of a broader plan for renewal.

The reasons for the membership decline—your broader question—need to be examined as well. Is it really because people are switching to other area churches? Or are people moving away from the region, or simply disengaging from church entirely? It’s important to carefully analyze the causes before responding too quickly. Your church needs to first understand what is going on and then consider what changes might be fitting—to their changing environment, as well as to their own values and history as a congregation.

Such self-assessment must be part of a broader process of spiritual discernment: What is God doing in your congregation today? What is the Spirit already doing? How can your congregation be more hospitable to the work and gifts of the Spirit? The congregation should explore how to carve out a niche that suits those gifts and is different from surrounding churches. In the process they will likely generate excitement for new or existing ministries. That excitement and commitment will be more attractive to visitors than any projection system. The congregation’s enthusiasm for the gospel and for ministry will itself attract new members.       

Q. There are so many great communicators and preachers on TV and the Internet today that I find it hard to compete. Members of my congregation talk about how Spirit-filled other preachers are when they preach without notes and with great emotion. I’m just not that kind of preacher. Should I change? How do I respond to these comments?

A. You’re right about the strong influence of good communicators in the media today; they raise the bar high for preachers! Being a good communicator is certainly a goal worth pursuing, and all preachers should work to improve their skills in this area. But it is just one aspect of preaching good sermons.

In addition to being delivered well, a sermon has to explain the gospel well and bring God’s Word into people’s lives in a way that works toward their transformation by the Holy Spirit. Does that happen through displaying emotion and preaching without notes? It certainly can and often does! But the Spirit also works through preachers who follow carefully written outlines. If the Spirit hasn’t been working in and through the pastor while he or she was preparing the sermon, that message probably won’t be effective when delivered to the congregation either.

It’s the power of the Word itself—the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ—that changes people, not the method by which the preacher speaks. Preaching styles should help and not hinder that message, so sermons should be based on the Bible and communicate in engaging ways. But we need to remember that the power is in the Word preached more than in the preacher.

The comments you’ve heard should make you want to evaluate the effectiveness of your own preaching and communication style, and perhaps invite others, like your elders, to help you with that process. But you also have an opportunity to explain to people how the Spirit works in different ways in your preparation and preaching. Perhaps they are looking for assurance that your words really do come from the Word. Being open and honest about this will show another important aspect of preaching: authenticity. Just as it’s important for the preacher to bring a message that shows the authenticity of the Bible, it is also imperative that the preacher really believes that message and has been moved by it.

Kathy Smith (kss4@calvin.edu) is associate director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. She also directs continuing education programs for the Institute and Calvin Theological Seminary, and teaches at the seminary. She is filling in for John Witvliet as editor of this column during his sabbatical year.

Reformed Worship 99 © March 2011, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.