03 Mercy in Our Churches

Mercy in Our Churches

  • The American Church seems to embody a promising, but inconsistent, model of mercy in its communities.
  • Younger seminary graduates are more likely to say their education emphasized mercy, but experience is also a teacher: Older and more tenured pastors feel most prepared to preach about mercy.
  • Practicing Christians don’t significantly differ from the general population in their reports of feeling compassion for various groups of people.
  • Meeting spiritual needs and sharing the gospel top the list of ways that Christians and pastors believe the Church, global and local, shows mercy and offers hope and healing.


  • What theological, cultural or political discussions or questions might complicate teachings and sermons on mercy today?
  • Outside the Church, where are people likely to receive messages about being compassionate to others?
  • How can leaders be better equipped to communicate mercy to their churches? How can they connect these principles with opportunities for loving in word and deed?


Church Leaders: Teachers of Mercy

As mercy is a key component of gospel knowledge and Christian living, it is central to church leadership. Regarding the latter, Barna surveyed both pastors and churchgoers about how their local churches preach and point to mercy. Overall, it seems mercy is being tackled frequently and deftly from the pulpit— at least in pastors’ estimations (or overestimations, given how much their perceptions sometimes differ from those of their parishioners).



The topic of mercy appears to be prioritized in American churches today. Indeed, three-quarters of practicing Christians (74%) say their pastor or someone else has taught about mercy in their church at least once in the past three months, and half (52%) recall this occurring within the past month. Pastors are slightly more likely to say their churches offer sermons on mercy, with more than eight in 10 (84%) claiming to have done so in the past three months and six in 10 (61%) stating they have taught about mercy within the past month.

Merciful actions, such as helping those in need, also seem to receive focus in church teachings. A majority of practicing Christians says they’re often encouraged to help poor people (75%), those in distress (68%) or someone who has wronged them (59%). Just three in 10 (31%) are often encouraged to help someone who has committed a crime. Pastors provide a similar assessment of church messaging, but they are less likely to say they often encourage their congregations to help someone who has wronged them (39%) or someone who has committed a crime (15%).



A majority of pastors (68%) believes teaching on mercy directly in sermons is the most effective way to inspire someone to learn about God, even more so than other topics like truth (28%) or justice (4%). Thus, it’s encouraging that three in four pastors (75%) feel either “extremely” or “very” prepared to preach on this subject. There are some divergences on this point relative to a pastor’s age and length of tenure in ministry. In assessing how knowledgeable they feel about handling the topic of mercy, those under age 40 (66%) or with less than 15 years in ministry (63%) are below average, while those older than 60 (82%) or with more than 25 years in ministry (79%) are above average.

Seminary training could help here: More than threequarters of those who graduated from seminary (77%) feel prepared to preach on mercy, versus two-thirds of those without a seminary background (66%). Indeed, seven in 10 seminary graduates say mercy was emphasized at least somewhat in their education. However, this might be a recent development in programs, as seminary-trained pastors under 40 (81%) or with a shorter tenure (76% of those with less than 15 years in ministry) are more likely than more senior or seasoned pastors (68% of those over age 60, 64% of those with at least 25 years in ministry) to say a theology of mercy received robust mention in their education.



If mercy is so prominent in church messages, are pastors practicing what they preach?

They are 20 percentage points more likely than parishioners to say their belief in mercy, or a desire to provide relief to others, influences their words and actions (83% vs. 63% of practicing Christians). Relatedly, pastors have a very high view of themselves as givers of unconditional forgiveness (91%), though six in 10 (58%) say they have personally received it.

Pastors' Accounts of Preaching About Mercy

Age and tenure have some impact in their reports of feeling genuine n=515 U.S. pastors, April 24–May 24, 2018. compassion for others. For example, pastors over 60 are significantly more likely to hold great compassion for someone who has wronged them (63% vs. 41% of pastors ages 40–59, 40% of pastors under 40). The same is true of pastors with a longer tenure in ministry (54% with 25+ years, 43% for 15–24 years, 40% for under 15 years). Vocationally, experience may be the seasoning required to assist pastors in cultivating the virtue of mercy, especially since their calling requires them to often encounter human shortcomings.


Tangible Mercies: What the Church Does

Do the responses of a person of faith— who, one assumes, has a deeper biblical understanding of what mercy is and does—stand out from the average U.S. adult?

For the most part, the numbers within the Church closely resemble those in the broader population. For instance, practicing Christians don’t significantly differ in reporting feelings of high compassion for those in distress (55% vs. 52% of general population), the poor (50% vs. 46%), someone who has wronged them (13% vs. 9%) or someone who has committed a crime (9% vs. 6%). These numbers suggest that attending church and taking one’s faith seriously do not necessarily correspond to greater compassion. Even with frequent exposure to teachings on mercy and consistent encouragement to show mercy (see page 26), the average church attendee does not appear to express more compassion than the average American.

Are Christians at least putting these beliefs into practice? Barna also asked those in the Church—both leaders and members— how they show mercy, beyond just reporting feelings of compassion for those in need.



On an individual level, practicing Christians say they extend mercy to people (other than family members) in a variety of ways, and their pastors are leading in this regard. It’s not surprising that pastors are more likely to meet spiritual needs, such as counseling or encouragement, due to their vocation (96% vs. 56% of practicing Christians). Accordingly, pastors may also have more opportunity to practice mercy in relational and practical ways, like establishing meaningful community with a diverse group of people (86% vs. 64%), including widows and orphans (72% vs. 32%). However, even in more general, accessible ways of practicing mercy, like making donations (59% of practicing Christians vs. 85% of pastors) or meeting other physical needs (54% vs. 76%), Christians still lag behind church leaders.

How Do You Show Mercy

Pastors appear to be practicing what they’re preaching when it comes to mercy—but at a macro level, their congregants are not necessarily following their lead. A commitment to traditional Christian teachings might accompany greater commitment to practical applications of mercy. For example, evangelical Christians—who, as defined by Barna, strongly affirm fundamental Christian concepts such as the Bible’s inerrancy and eternal salvation through grace— are more likely than other practicing Christians to report showing mercy in all of these ways (70% spiritual needs, 72% diverse relationships, 69% donations, 66% physical needs, 41% caring for widows and orphans).



How are local churches providing mercy, in practice, to their communities or to groups who could be considered in need? Here, too, pastors and practicing Christians give markedly different answers.

When asked how their churches choose to show mercy, practicing Christians’ top selection is spiritual needs, such as counseling or encouragement (79%). (Respondents could select all options they believe accurately describe a way in which their church provides mercy.) Three-quarters (75%) confirm the presence of church support ministries, followed by merciful endeavors like fostering relationships with a diversity of people (68%), giving money (66%), supporting other physical needs (64%) and, finally, caring for widows and orphans (52%).

As shown in the following chart, pastors up the ante in every category when presented with similar questions. Their reports of church-given provision (offered “sometimes” or “often”) in the same six categories consistently exceed practicing Christians’, averaging more than 24 percentage points higher. Notably, nearly all pastors (96%) feel their churches meet physical needs, not including giving money, 32 percentage points more than practicing Christians. A large margin occurs concerning care for widows and orphans, which 89 percent of pastors and just over half of congregants say is practiced by their church.

Overall, the American Church seems to embody a promising, but inconsistent, model of mercy in its communities. Further, the very optimistic responses of church leaders suggest they may need either a more grounded, realistic perspective of the true reach of their churches, or more effective ways of communicating their ministries’ existing programs and impact to their congregants.

How Does Your Church Show Mercy

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