Sunday, November 28, 2010

Guaranteed low attendance...

The very best way to deter church shoppers and potential new members is to list sermon titles, topics, and the speaker in the church newsletter or on the church website. (Special occasions an exception.)

Potential visitors often check out church websites. If they like what they see, they're inclined to visit. This desire to visit may be thwarted by a particular sermon topic. For current members, listing titles creates a "pick and choose" faith, i.e., I like that sermon topic so I'll be there; I don't like that sermon topic so I'll stay home.

Listing sermon titles is a lose-lose situation all around.


  1. Yup. But it's very hard to convince existing members who have gotten into the habit of a pick-and-choose faith to give up the option of not attending services if they don't like the topic, preacher, or the music (many congregations also list music, which is also A Bad Idea). Sigh. This is a perfect example of setting up congregational life to meet the needs of a small and dwindling group of insiders.

  2. I understand the case here, but years ago, the Chicago Tribune would publish the upcoming sermons of all sorts of Churches. What was going to be said, was worthy of news. It's not that way anymore, and I think we've lost something here.

  3. Not to mention it's not an inconsiderable time suck.

  4. I know for a fact that members of churches I know "shop" services. Not attending if the wrong person is leading the service or if the topic is not a chief concern at the moment. And I'll take your word for it that potential visitors might not attend because of a topic or title.

    What may or may not have sufficient support is the idea that people who avoid service X because of person Y or topic Z would attend in absence of the information. Is there any research on this, Mike?

  5. I believe Mike is correct, based on thirty years of my own personal experience. Sermon titles are virtually meaningless exercises, since in many cases what the preacher actually says bears little relation to a title chosen in haste early in the week for the bulletin and the announcement board outside.

    I like the option of simply displaying outside a short, pertinent verse of Scripture from one of the lections for the upcoming Sunday.

  6. It depends...I started publishing titles and short descriptions again after a previous minister ended the practice. I was able to say, "Look, I know you're happy to see what's coming up. But I am NOT publishing them for you. I'm publishing so visitors will see them and hopefully be intrigued. Also, so you will know upcoming topics and invite people you think would be interested."

    So far, it seems to be working. But it comes with a big responsibility for me--trying to write intriguing titles and give enough (but not too much) information to get people interested. Also, I speak frequently about how a church that truly values diversity/plurality will be full of people who are excited by topics that do not, at first glance, appeal to them. After all, it will probably appeal to someone else--with different interests, theology, philosophy, background...

    Like I said, so far so good. I only felt like I could do this because an earlier minister took the radical stand of printing no information on upcoming services, thus breaking the habit of "pick and choose." Of course, people still stayed home when they felt like it...

  7. I would argue, if the topic is intruiging and exciting, it may attract guests. It is a call for us to have dynamic topics and worship.

  8. I do know of one case where a newcomer came to church because of the sermon topic. Anecdotes prove nothing, though. I'm inclined to think you are right, Mike, but is there any data backing up any of the positions in this perennial debate?


  9. The practice of publishing sermon titles dates back to the the Unitarian humanist fellowship movement of the 1950s, in which people mostly desired to hear a secular lecture on Sunday mornings.

    Mainline Protestantism has rarely embraced this practice, and most churches post the message that Sunday services are at 9 and 11. That's why there is little or no data supporting publishing sermon titles or not. Why study a practice that is unsuccessful?

    So-called "tombstone" ads in the newspapers list sermon topics, but IMHO, most are generic and unappealing, a real turn-off.

    Speaking of Unitarians, back in the 1860s, noted minister William Ellery Channing was strolling across Boston Garden, on his way to the Arlington Street Church. He encountered a parishioner, and said, "Come, let us worship together." The gentleman replied, "But I do not care for the sermon topic this morning and will not be there." From that day forward, Channing never again published a sermon title. He was a wise man.

    Opinions vary, but I hold my view that publishing sermon titles in advance is the very best way to deter potential visitors and current members alike. People of good faith should gather on Sunday mornings, as small miracles occur there. The sermon topic is largely irrelevant.

  10. Mike, I'm not sure I believe you that other denominations haven't used this practice. The signboards for mainline churches in downtown Boston routinely publicize sermon titles. And what's the source for your claim that the practice was introduced by Unitarian Humanists? I'd be very interested in the research that showed that.

  11. When you have a liturgy you follow again and again, it makes sense you'd have little use for publishing the titles in advance.

  12. I guess my whole objection to this train of thought (not publishing sermon titles) is the attitude projected by such words as "the unfortunate publishing of sermon titles" and "guaranteed to produce low attendance".

    Practices differ from region to region, denomination to denomination, even church to church. And, miraculously I guess, many churches are hauling them in despite the terrible offense of publishing sermon titles.

    I know that mainline denominations tend not to publish sermon titles. Fine, and are they growing? No. How is their attendance? Not so hot, from what I can tell.

    As for my congregation out here on the west edge of the US, we are growing strongly, people regularly say that they were intrigued by the sermon title, and nobody seems to stay away because they weren't interested.

    If it's not working for your church, then let go of it. If it is, hang onto it. But don't paint every situation with the same brush and tell all of us we ought to change our ways because you say so. That's annoying and arrogant.

    I think Sean's reasoning is right on----we do this for visitors, we do it to give people an idea about what kind of church we are, we do it because we have some great news to share and we want to give everyone the chance to hear it.

  13. I recently led a one-day event in which people from 22 congregations attended. The sole church that published sermon titles was the smallest congregation. Two churches that did not publish sermon titles were 2,000 and 5,000 members respectively.

    Ministers who have tried both approaches tell me that sermon titles appeal to people who have an interest in that particular topic. Leaving titles out appeals to people who have a deeper commitment to the congregation as a whole, and who will be there no matter what the sermon is about.

    I drove by a church last night, and the Sunday sermon topic is, "Aspiration." I'm sure people will line up for that one.

    It's not just a matter of my saying so. With all due respect to my ministerial friends, sermon titles are very difficult to make appealing. Would you go to a movie titled Aspiration?

  14. "The sole church that published sermon titles was the smallest congregation. Two churches that did not publish sermon titles were 2,000 and 5,000 members respectively." Your conclusion is based on faulty logic - There are undoubtedly many reasons why a church would reach membership in the thousands, and whether or not they publish sermon topics isn't necessarily even on the list!

    While I can agree that committed people "should" come to church whether or not they like the topic or the person presenting it, I have not experienced a great deal of success with making folks do as they "should."

    I would say that IF the services are of consistently high quality, IF they are engaging and life transforming (at last most of the time), IF the congregation is open and friendly, IF there are many things going on in the church with opportunities for people to get involved, etc., then it makes little difference whether or no the sermon topics are published.

    I would agree that it is difficult to make sermon topics (and accompanying blurbs) appealing. Do we generally NOT do things because they are difficult? Come ON! Aren't we willing to do whatever it takes to grow our congregations, or would we rather argue about how many angels can dance on the heads of pins?

    Let's do some real substantive work on what it really means and what it really takes to provide transformative worship. I'm new to this group, so forgive me if you all have already solved that problem.

  15. Great post, and yes, mine was faulty logic. Noted author Lyle Schaller often wrote,"The quality goes in before the invitation goes out."
    This is in regard to both Sunday worship and other church programs.

    Alas, Sunday mornings are amateur hour in too many churches, with extraneous announcements, garage band quality of music, and little that touches the heart and soul. I also believe that people sharing joys and concerns is like fingernails on the blackboard, but I'll get some arguments on this one.

    Stay tuned for a new post on what the worship service should accomplish.