What This Little-Known Social Theory Has to Do with Your Sermons

By Jeffrey Arthurs, adapted from Preaching Points: 55 Tips for Improving Your Pulpit Ministry.

Remember ERP: Estimated Relationship Potential. This is a social science theory from the field of interpersonal communication which demonstrates that when we meet someone we quickly form an estimate of the potential for a relationship. We start to calculate: What kind of relationship is possible here? What will the nature of our relationship be? Will it be a romantic relationship? Will it be an authoritative relationship? Maybe I want to avoid this person.

Most of this process of estimation is done subconsciously. It is based on factors such as physical appearance, dress, facial expression, accent, and vocabulary. We try to determine if the person is similar or dissimilar to us and whether or not we could connect with him or her in a meaningful way.

Even though ERP is a theory from interpersonal communication, it applies to public ministry. When you stand up to speak, people subconsciously estimate the kind of relationship they can expect. This is especially true for visitors who are seeing you in the pulpit for the first time. It is also true for longtime church members. Every Sunday they form an estimate of what each particular sermon will be like.

So ERP tells preachers to start well. Be yourself, don’t mimic another preacher, but begin your sermon with energy, a smile, and good posture. The first sixty seconds of your sermon set a tone and influence how people will respond to the rest of the sermon.

ERP also tells us to choose and train the greeters and ushers of our churches with care. The volunteers who hand out the bulletin or shake hands at the door set an expectation for the entire Sunday experience even if the initial contact takes only seven seconds.

ERP also counsels us to walk about the church property to scrutinize its visual aspects. Start in the parking lot and use the eyes of a visitor as she approaches your church. Is it clean? Is it well marked? As folks walk up to the church, they are exercising ERP, Estimated Relationship Potential. Remember the ERP Factor.


This post is adapted from “Remember the ERP Factor” by Jeffrey Arthurs in Preaching Points: 55 Tips for Improving Your Pulpit Ministry, edited by Scott M. Gibson (Lexham Press, 2016).

Written by
Faithlife Staff

Faithlife (makers of Logos Bible Software) is the largest developer of Bible study software and creator of the world's first integrated ministry platform—a full suite of ministry, communication, and management tools for churches.

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1 comment
  • I did a search on “estimated relationship potential” ERP, as it is a topic that I find very interesting. But I found fewer than ten references on the Web. I don’t remember reading about this even though my academic background is on interpersonal relationships. I just purchased the book but would be very grateful for any references on this topic.

Written by Faithlife Staff