A recent Pew Research Center poll titled “Why Americans Go (and Don’t Go) to Religious Services” caught my attention this week.
There’s a lot of information, but here’s what I gleaned from it:
Among adults who attend church services at least once or twice a month, when asked to rank reasons they attend as very important, somewhat important, or not important, 81 percent indicated that a very important reason they go to church is “To become closer to God.”
Sixty-nine percent said they attend so that “children will have moral foundation” and 68 percent also go “to make me a better person.”
The fifth important reason on the list (59 percent) said they go because they “find the sermons valuable.”
Don’t miss this. The top three answers people give are so that they will be closer to God, their children will follow God and they will become more like God.
But that’s not all. Digging a little deeper, when asked to list the most important reason, 61 percent said, “to become closer to God.”
No other answer was close.
Only 8 percent answered, “to make me a better person,” 4 percent responded, “so my children will grow up with a moral foundation.” And only 4 percent said they go because they “find the sermons valuable.”
So, while sermons are essential, and many people decide what church to go to based on how much they like the preaching, people are starving to get closer to God.
I think it’s because most people don’t feel near to God throughout the week. They live in the real world, surrounded by the worries of everyday life, the temptations of sin, and friends, family, and coworkers who don’t believe in God.
By the time Sunday rolls around, if it’s one of the weeks they actually go to church, they are spiritually starving.
How Might This Change Your Preaching?
We cannot forget what people need.
They need help getting closer to God.
Many sermons focus on moral living and becoming a better person, but that’s not the number one need people coming to your church feel. Those things are important. But their primary need is not better behavior, but a better God.
Other sermons focus on the vision of the church, challenging people to give their money and time to help further the mission. That’s also important. But their primary need is not a bigger church, but a bigger God.
Another trend of preaching focuses on greater knowledge of the Bible. This too is very good. But their primary need is not more Bible knowledge, but to know the God of the Bible.
So, here is a question we all must consider: From beginning to end, where is our church service taking people?
Are we just leading people to better behavior, more participation or greater knowledge? Or, are we leading people toward knowing God, an encounter that will ultimately transform their lives, resulting in all of the above?
People aren’t stupid. They know they need God. Many just don’t know how to find him.
I think this is one reason why some churches are dying and others are thriving.
Thriving churches have an energy about them where people come expecting to draw closer to God. They expect to feel his presence, hear his voice and experience his love.
It’s not about you, the pastor. You are just the messenger. You are merely the person saying, “Look at God! Look at his Word! This is God speaking. This is what God wants to say to you today.”
According to this survey, being part of a community and hearing a good sermon is still vital. However, what most people hunger and thirst for is to experience the presence of God. So, in your service this week, how will you lead your people into God’s presence?
Don’t just give advice. Don’t just teach morality. Don’t just lecture. Don’t just play church.
Lead people into the presence of God, and let God take it from there.
Oh, and here’s a bonus tip: If you’ve been living like hell all week, it’s hard to lead people to heaven.
You won’t lead people to God if you haven’t been in his presence yourself. So, if your relationship with God is lacking, start there.
Brandon Hilgemann is a pastor, the founder of ProPreacher.com (where this article was originally published) and the author of Preaching Nuts & Bolts: Conquer Sermon Prep, Save Time, and Write Better Messages.