Jun 3, 2013From the Archives
Reading Habits of Today’s Pastors
It seems like every time there’s a new bit of communication technology, someone prophesies the death of previous technologies. The advent of the tape heralded the death of the record, the CD heralded the death of the record and the tape, and the MP3 meant the death of physical music media. The arrival of television meant the radio would die. The proliferation of the Internet meant print magazines and newspapers were utterly doomed. And, of course, the rise of e-readers and tablet computers meant print-and-paper books were dead forever. In fact, some have suggested the Internet and e-readers might represent a one-two punch that will destroy all forms of long-form reading.
Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, it turns out that new technology rarely destroys an existing medium—if anything, it just changes it. Radio dramas may have been usurped by television shows, but terrestrial radio remains a go-to source for news, music and information. The MP3 might have changed how an album is thought of, but it also forced a democratization of music that has led to an artistic explosion. And, of course, e-readers and tablets haven’t killed the book—they’ve just changed how one can buy them, and how people read them.
So if the book isn’t dead, who’s still buying them? Who’s keeping the publishing industry going?
A good place to start answering that question is with a group of professionals who, on average, buys 3.8 books per month per person—92% of whom buy at least one book per month—adding up to between 8 million and 13 million books per year. Compare that to the total population, where less than one-third (29%) of American adults buy more than 10 books in the course of a year.
So, who is this population segment of voracious readers? Pastors.
A Big Group of Readers
First, it’s helpful to explain just how many pastors there are. A recent Barna survey found there are 315,000 Protestant houses of worship in the United States—that’s compared to approximately 13,000 McDonalds and 4,000 Walmarts. Or, to put it another way: more than 300,000 people who purchase, on average, 3.8 books per month. That’s not counting the number of books purchased by people influenced by pastors, such as other ministry staff and congregants, likely driving the total number of books even higher.
According to new research by Barna Group into the buying and reading habits of pastors, younger pastors buy more books per year than do older pastors. This is a strong indication that the market for book-related content will remain strong among the youngest generation of faith leaders.
So what are the books these pastors are buying? Well, for the most part, they’re related to a specific topic a pastor needs to know about or is interested in. When a pastor selects a ministry-related book, the single most important factor is the topic. This was followed by the author and a recommendation from someone. Price, title and convenience were reportedly rare selection criteria.
So what topics are they looking for? When asked to identify the types of books they have read recently, pastors identified spirituality, theology and leadership most frequently. Other popular subjects include prayer, history, cultural trends and church practice. About half of pastors are reading biographies and one-third are consuming business books. Fiction is a slightly less prevalent category among pastors, compared to the general population.
Where They Buy
It’s clear pastors are buying books, but where are they purchasing them? After all, usually the “death of books” headline is accompanied by a “death of bookstores” subhead. We saw the rise of Amazon and the death of Borders. Is that the trend among pastors too?
Yes and no. In the Pastors + Books report, pastors reveal that Christian retail and online were the two primary channels through which they acquire books. General retail was a distant third, followed by book distributors. Small slices of pastors purchase direct from the publisher or from their denomination.
However, as might be expected, the approach to online shopping changes by generation. Overall, more than half of Busters (ages 28 to 46) preferred online, compared with smaller proportions of Boomers (ages 47 to 65) and Elders (ages 66-plus). Christian retail was slightly less commonly preferred among Busters compared to Boomers or Elders, but not by much. Elders most commonly preferred general retail.
The Online Elephant in the Printed Room
So what about digital books? Are pastors migrating to e-readers? Almost half of pastors said they use a digital device like an e-reader or an iPad. That number is nearly triple that of two years ago. Even so, more than half of pastors still prefer reading hardcover books to either paper back or digital. And, while e-book sales in the industry are booming and print declining, pastors of all generations and in all church sizes still prefer hard copies to digital versions.
That doesn’t mean the digital revolution hasn’t changed pastors’ reading habits though. The biggest change seems to be in how pastors hear and are influenced in their decision on what books to buy or avoid. Two-thirds of pastors said they learned about books online, not including via social networking. Another one-fifth of pastors said they found books to purchase from social media like Facebook and Twitter. The Pastors + Books report also delves into pastors’ exposure to books via broadcast publicity, peer recommendations, bookstore visits, and magazines. The report also addresses the growing social media usage rates among today’s Protestant faith leaders.
In addition to getting book recommendations, pastors are also heavy influencers. More than nine-in-10 pastors said they make book recommendations from the pulpit at least once a year.
What the Research Means
From the Barna study, at least among pastors as a market segment, concerns about the “death of books” don’t hold much water. Pastors are still reading at incredibly high rates—and they’re not only reading, but they’re also buying books amounting to millions of purchases each year.
It’s also worth noting pastors are just as likely to purchase their books from brick-and-mortar stores as they are online. That should motivate bookstores to keep themselves stocked with books that can compete with online in both price and overall selection. The convenience of being in one place to purchase many books without having to wait for shipping is still a major pull for many pastors.
Pastors are also joining the digital revolution in both their use of e-readers and their engagement with online book recommendations. Though pastors still prefer hardcover books, the use of digital readers is catching up, and publishers, retailers and those communicating to church leaders would be wise to adapt to those shifts. Additionally, it’s clear pastors are getting plenty of book recommendations online, so fostering an online marketing strategy that incorporates social media is vital for any publishing model.
About the Research
The data reported in this article are derived from the Barna Report, Pastors + Books. The research is based upon telephone interviews with three nationwide, representative random samples of senior pastors of Protestant churches. Each wave included a minimum of 600 interviews with pastors. The maximum sampling error associated with each sample is ±4.1 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. The cooperation rate with pastors was 80% or higher in each of the three studies. All interviews were conducted by Barna Group. Church leaders were selected for inclusion in the sample at random, using a composite of multiple national church lists. Church received multiple callbacks to increase the probability of obtaining a representative sample of leaders. None of these lists were convenience or consumer panels, ensuring the highest possible representativeness.
Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.
Get Barna in your inbox
Subscribe to Barna’s free newsletters for the latest data and insights to navigate today’s most complex issues.