This article originally appeared on Thom Rainer's blog.

My book Surprising Insights from the Unchurched was released in 2001. Part of the research included an analysis of how pastors spent their time in a typical week. The amount of time they spent in sermon preparation was pretty dismal. I was able to demonstrate how greater time in sermon preparation correlated with key metrics of church health. I concluded that the relatively dismal time in the Word was a major factor in the lack of health in many churches.

New and Exciting Research

I commissioned Lifeway Research to conduct a new and updated study that included several questions asked of pastors, including the amount of time in sermon preparation. About 7,000 pastors in my denomination were asked to participate in the study; the total number who participated was 1,066, a healthy statistical sample.*

The research, conducted in April and May of 2012, was weighted to include accurate representation by size of church (in worship attendance) and geographic location of church. The results as a whole were exciting and encouraging.

Some Results from the Research

The change from 2001 to 2012 was dramatic. What a difference a decade makes! Admittedly, the two studies are not "apples and apples" comparisons; still the obvious trends are encouraging.

My 2001 study found that the average amount a time a pastor spent in sermon preparation was four hours a week per sermon prepared. Most pastors then were preparing two different sermons, so they spent about eight hours a week in sermon study and preparation. Now look at the numbers for 2012:

Amount of Time in Sermon Preparation Each Week

  • Less Than 5 Hours - 8%

  • 5 to 7 Hours - 23%

  • 8 to 10 Hours - 25%

  • 11 to 15 Hours - 23%

  • More Than 15 Hours - 21%

These numbers represent total sermon preparation time per week, and the increase from a decade ago is dramatic. Of the pastors we surveyed, nearly seven out of ten spend eight or more hours in sermon preparation. More than four out of ten spend eleven or more hours; and more than one out of five spend 15 hours or more preparing sermons each week.

I am encouraged. In past studies, I have found a correlative relationship between time in sermon preparation and church health metrics. The greater the time in sermon preparation, the more likely the church is to be evangelistically effective, have a higher retention rate of members, and have a higher weekly per capita giving.

Simply stated, when the pastor spends more time in the Word, the church tends to be healthier.

The Challenges and Opportunities

Not all the research, however, is glowing with optimism. Pastors of the smallest churches (1 to 49 in worship attendance) spend very little time in sermon preparation. That should not come as a surprise. Most of these pastors are bi-vocational; they have a full-time job outside the church. They simply do not have the time to put into sermon preparation as do their peers who are fulltime in their churches. Because we have so many (perhaps as many as 200,000 or more) bi-vocational churches in America, this area should be a focus and an opportunity for the future.

One of the other encouraging results of our study related to the age of the pastors. Those whose ages ranged from 18 to 44 spent more time in sermon preparation than any other age-related group. That means that our young adult, and younger middle age adult pastors are leading the way in this focus. Such a priority can only bode well for the future.

It is certainly true that many of the research reports of American churches have been dismal in recent years. Indeed, I have been a communicator of some of those discouraging findings. But we should pause and take time to celebrate this latest data. Our churches may not be where we want them to be. But information such as this gives us reason to hope. God is not done with our churches yet.

*In the months of April and May 2012, 1,066 SBC pastors participated in a survey asking a number of questions. The sampling was weighted to represent accurately churches by worship size and geographic location. The sample provides a 95% confidence that the sampling error does not exceed +/- 3.0%. Margins of error are higher in sub-groups.