Is it possible to overemphasize the importance of preaching the Word to the detriment of the church’s numerical growth?

Is it possible to overemphasize local outreach so much that the church actually decreases in size as a result?

Apparently so.


These are the shocking findings (at least on the surface) recently published. Authors David Dunaetz and Kenneth Priddy have offered up research that challenges some of our most cherished values.[1]

The survey results

Attitude Survey Question Correlation
Preaching How important is preaching of the Word? – .33
Outreach How important is providing outreach to the local community? – .22
Prayer How important is personal and corporate prayer .33
Transfer Growth Transfer growth is an indicator of positive congregational health .28

The authors note that these four attitudes account for 23% of the variation in year-over-year growth rates in the sample. The remaining 77% is attributable to other factors that are not accounted for in this study.[2]

The surprise here is that two of evangelicalism’s core values – preaching and outreach – have negative correlations to one year growth. In other words, pastors who hold these values in higher degree than their evangelical colleagues are more likely to be leading declining churches!

The positive results are, well, positive! And encouraging. We would expect that an emphasis prayer and a welcoming attitude toward those who join our churches (no matter where they come from) should result in positive growth.

But how do we explain the fact that placing a premium on preaching and outreach typically lead to decline, at least in the short term?

Can we overemphasize preaching?

I have to admit, as a graduate of a seminary whose motto is (or was at the time) “preach the Word” I’m floored by these results.

So are the authors of this research.

The most seemingly controversial finding of this study is that a strong belief in the importance of preaching the Word is a predictor of a negative growth rate, that is, a shrinking membership. Not only does this seem to contradict evangelical theology, which upholds the preaching of the Word of God, but it seems to contradict other studies that clearly indicate that churches that place less of an emphasis on the Bible are in decline while conservative churches are growing.”[3]

So how do we explain this? Several possibilities come to mind.

  • Bear in mind that this is a survey of evangelical pastors, all of whom cherish preaching of the Word.
  • It is possible that those who rank the value of preaching significantly higher than their evangelical colleagues use the sermon to mask their deficiencies in other ministry critical skills. Preaching alone will not save a pastor from her lack of relationship skills. His inability to successfully manage conflict will not be ameliorated by superior pulpiteering.
  • The authors note that the average strength of a pastor’s attitude toward preaching ranks 9.8 on a 1-10 Likert scale, so the difference is small but significant.
  • They also allow the fact that an over-emphasis on preaching may result in excessive sermon prep time that attenuates the pastor’s ability to be involved in other activities that are equally important to increased church attendance.[4]
  • If the congregation has become a notebook church (You’ve seen them), it’s possible that the problem isn’t with the pastor’s hard work in sermon prep but rather that the church, in spite of its zeal and devotion for the truth, has lost its first love and with it, loss of passion about the Mission:

    “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:

    1 These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands. 2  I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. 3  You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.

    4  Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first.[5]

It could be that these survey results are also an outlier – a leading indicator – of changes that we can expect to see in our culture. In other words, this may come to typify the experience of congregations whose pastors are gracious yet firm on biblical truths that are falling from popularity within the evangelical realm.[6]

Can we overemphasize outreach?

Believing that it is important to provide outreach to the local community is a negative predictor of the one-year church growth rate. This goes against the intuitive belief that churches need to do more outreach in order to lead more people to Christ.[7]

This is actually much easier to explain, at least from my seat.

The emphasis on “outreach” is an artifact of the Church Growth (CG) movement and the Attractional Church (AC) model. The influence of both is waning – a fact which some will mourn and others praise.

But no matter where you stand on that issue, this datapoint reveals an often unexamined presupposition. There is a significant difference between “outreach” which is a corporate activity sponsored and administered by the church and “evangelism” which is the personal mission and lifestyle choice of individual believers.

Believers on mission will reach lives that are immune to outreach. Many if not most Americans (from 40% to 75+% depending which study you cite) are effectively immune to outreach. They reject the premise that they should go to church. Contrary to what we would hope, they are not in search mode, looking attend one that suits them. They consciously screen out the church’s efforts to attract them to events and activities that bring them within range of the heavy artillery.

Churches that rely on CG research and the AC model – which I suspect typifies the subjects in this study who scored outreach significantly higher than their colleagues – should be expected to decline.

They are relying on less than optimal methods, operate from unwarranted assumptions, and provide cover for members to excuse themselves from the front lines of mission in the world.

Questions for you, pastor

  1. Do you indulge in excessive sermon prep time such that you are hampered in other ministry activities that also help lead to numerical church growth?
  2. If you answer in the affirmative, why? What motivates you in your sermon preparation? Is it possible that this is a covert but “godly” way to avoid meeting people on the front lines of the mission field?
  3. Is your church program devoting excessive time, money and human resources to organized outreach efforts that (1) are showing diminishing returns and (2) providing cover for the saints who aren’t involved in direct personal outreach?

  1. David R. Dunaetz and Kenneth E. Priddy, “Pastoral Attitudes That Predict Numerical Church Growth” Great Commission Research Journal 5:2(Winter 2014), 241-256.  â†©
  2. Page 250.  â†©
  3. Ibid.  â†©
  4. Page 251.  â†©
  5. Revelation 2:1-4.  â†©
  6. Note, e.g., the imminent onslaught to push the whole of evangelicalism to endorse homosexual marriage. See, e.g., Albert Mohler’s recent “God, the Gospel, and the Gay Challenge – A Response to Matthew Vines.” We are told that this is a cause celebre within the Millennial cohort and as such we would expect them to forsake churches and pastors that hold the historical position on homosexuality.  â†©
  7. Dunaetz and Priddy, Page 253.  â†©


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