A surprising key to effective preaching?

What makes for a good sermon? Or, a better question, what makes for effective preaching? Is it the length of the sermon, the number of illustrations, the relevance of the application, the use of alliteration to reinforce the main points? Or something else.

Recently, the IPTT (the Irish Preaching Think Tank), a cross denominational, and cross-border group of academics, ministers, pastors and lay people, have been putting their minds to the task of answering the question. Which should be good news all round, for pew and pulpit alike.

To research the question a team from IPTT developed a tool which they call PEAT (Preaching Effectiveness Assessment Tool). It consists of two questionnaires – one for pew and one for pulpit – which were distributed to 200 congregations in May 2014. Each church was asked to distribute copies of the congregational questionnaires to its members who were in attendance on a given Sunday; the minister (or whoever else might have been preaching on the Sunday) was given a copy of the preaching questionnaire.

The congregational questionnaire covered a set of questions that aimed to discover what it was about the preacher or the message that made the preaching effective (or not). It covered things like the length of the sermon, whether the sermon was expositional or topical; it asked about the setting in which the sermon was heard – including whether the congregation sat on pews or chairs, whether the preacher preached from a pulpit or a lectern, use of slides on the screen and so on; and it also explored how the congregations perceived their preachers – is he/she warm, funny, serious, authoritarian etc. Preachers were asked about things such as how much time they took to prepare, whether they spent time with the Hebrew or Greek text in preparation, and whether they used a manuscript or spoke extemporaneously.

Almost 190 congregations returned the questionnaire (an encouragingly high percentage, although each of the 200 congregations involved had indicated an interest in being involved).

I’ll give you the link to their report at the end of this blog – and much of it proved to be fairly unsurprising. However there was a surprising twist in the results of the research. It seems (and IPTT want to explore this further) that how the preacher dresses has more of an impact than you might imagine.

Here are some of the comments:

  • ‘My minister is a very sincere man and I am sure his sermons are very theologically correct: but when he stands up there with his white shirt against the orange background of the back wall of the pulpit, he just doesn’t look right… he looks ill and I find it hard to hear what he is saying.’ – A, 62, Presbyterian.
  • ‘I get the black tee shirt, black skinny jeans thing, but sometimes an overweight 50 year old preacher needs to take a look in the mirror.’ – R, 22, Hipster Community Church.
  • ‘If he dresses like the 70’s it makes me worry that his mind is still stuck back there, and, you know, we need people who connect with the contemporary issues.’ L, 38, Baptist.
  • ‘Sincere and all that, but if you are going to wear a button-down shirt, you need to fasten the buttons. Sloppy dress can only lead eventually to sloppy thinking. So I’m on heresy watch the whole time.’ M – 50, Anglican.

Fascinating stuff, really. Something for the preachers among us to think about – especially as we are at the start of Spring and it might be a good time to have a wardrobe clear out. Maybe your church will even give you a clothing allowance.

You can read the complete report from IPTT here. And while you are at it, you might like to check out my report on the impact of coffee from a year ago.

2 thoughts on “A surprising key to effective preaching?

  1. UPDATE: Dr Feargal McShannigan from the Irish Preaching Think Tank (IPTT) would like me to clarify that the report group’s findings reported in my earlier post technically really only applies to sermons preached on APRIL 1 (although it may be no bad thing to keep them in mind on other days).

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