Concerning Sermons

This series was originally posted in March of 2012 on an older blog that has faded into the ether. The post below contains two articles about the ritual of sermons, and then a series of letters between Pastor Lock and my good friend, Brady Lee.

 

Because I work in church world and preach on occasion people assume that I value sermons.  So they come to me with comments on various preachers.  They say things like, “I really like how this guy…” or “I struggle to connect with that guy because…”  Inevitably in the conversation comes the “what do you think?” moment.

My response often is, “I think a sermon, when done by a gifted speaker, is a great motivational tool.  But I think they are a horrible way to teach.”  (Depending on who I’m talking to I might insert a jab or two here just for my own amusement. I know.  It’s funny…but wrong.)  This typically (especially with church goers who love sermons) starts some form of debate on whether sermons are a useful or out dated tool.

Here is my main problem.  Where else do you see an expert lecturing for an hour once a week being used as the primary vehicle for growth, development, life change, or even simply education?

“Universities?” you say.

But I disagree.  While yes, there are lecturers in universities.  These lectures are accompanied by required reading, essays, and (most importantly) tests to make sure you are paying attention and retaining information.

Using sermons as the primary vehicle for communication in a congregation:

  • turns your worship service into a pep-rally.
  • encourages the idol of consumerism to grow deeper roots in the church by expecting nothing from the people but their attention for 30 minutes to an hour a day.
  • devalues the lay people by elevating the clergy as the person that everyone else needs to listen to.

It is time to seriously rethink this tool that dominates church life.

———————————–

At the end of last week I wrote a brief post about how I think sermons are an  outdated tool that can create bad things in our church culture.  I expected the response to that post to be outrage.  When I’ve floated that same idea in church leadership circles I’ve received comments like, “It isn’t a church if there is no preaching of the Word you jerk!”  (Okay…I added the “you jerk” for dramatic effect.)  But that is why I love the community of people that read this blog.  (Insert Yoda voice here)  Natural outside the box thinkers you are.    Or just expect me to say crazy stuff you do?   Maybe only half paying attention you are?

Whatever the reason several of you sympathized and then asked me to expound.  I’m going to take three of the questions and work through them now:

1.  If sermons aren’t a good way to teach then what would be ideal?.

Sermons are not horrible in and of themselves.  They are just a tool.  The problem with them is, because they have been around for so long, we’ve accepted them as a normative part of congregational life.  The tool has become the goal.  We are like construction workers whose goal is to use his fancy screw driver, rather than to hang the dry wall.

The ideal is a congregation (or representative leadership) sitting down and honestly asking two questions:

1) When we come together as a large group, what are we trying to accomplish?

2)  What is the most effective way to accomplish that thing?

Now it might be that your goal is to be inspired to and learn more about following God.  And that when you sit down your team says, “I think the best way to do that is to let Joe Smith teach us once a week for an hour.”  If you’ve gone through that process than a sermon is ideal.

Unfortunately that is not what we do.  What we do is say, “What style of music and what kind of sermon will define our large group gathering?”  We assume the tools and thus misuse them.

I also think an ideal scenario would have a set time for re-evaluation.  A built in “we are going to rethink this whole thing every six months” statement.  That way the tools the congregation use always have to be re-justified.

There are a lot of things about this system that excite me: the potential for massive variety, congregational ownership and understanding of what is happening in the room, and the process having the need to define practices built in to name a few.

2. How do we balance all of that university-type stuff as normative to each believer without churches becoming glorified education systems (instead of schools of life)? Put another way, what do we do with people of knowledge and learning (and hopefully wisdom) and what role do they play as part of the (active and doing) body?

Two things.  How we define the words discipleship, worship, mission, and fellowship will radically change our systems as we work through the two questions.  Contemporary church systems have ritual and rule following as their base understanding of discipleship.  “Discipleship is participating in X programs and learning to follow X rules.”  Gaining more knowledge in a class room setting is therefore a clear goal of discipleship.

If our understanding of discipleship is more mission oriented (every member learning to live as a missionary in his/her unique context) then learning must be: in the field with times of debrief, it needs to empower people to connect with the Spirit, it needs to empower people to act, etc…  With this understanding of discipleship the large group gathering may not be about learning at all.  Maybe instead it is about sharing experiences?  Maybe it is about encouraging each other to press on during the week?

Second, how that plays out will be unique to each congregation.  If it is a congregation of university professions who all have Ph.D’s, then homework won’t be any big deal.  If it is a congregation in which most of the members didn’t graduate high school then a university model of learning won’t work.

3. If we discard or significantly alter the sermon, how do we integrate teaching into the natural life and rhythms of the church?

Here is how it is happening in the two congregations I’m currently a part of:

The Thingy has never had a sermon as part of our rhythm.  We’ve gone through multiple versions of large group gatherings in our three years.  Currently we’ve said what we need when we come together is connection with one another, prayer, and a reminder of the lifestyle that unites us.  We therefore have a monthly dinner at which everyone talks about their mission fields.  Then we spend time praying for one another.

At Valley we have just begun to talk about what happens in the large group space.  We’ve started question 1.  But our understanding and practice of discipleship has changed.  When we went through the two questions above, one of the things that Valley valued was different respecting different learning styles.  They said that they needed a variety of discipleship experiences to learn and practice the Love Like Jesus life that is defining the community.  So we (the leadership) provide classes, audio teachings, daily scripture readings, routine mission experiences, personal coaching, and other tools.  Once a quarter the congregation gathers, reviews what it means to love like Jesus, and then each member build his/her own plan for discipleship by choosing the tools he/she need to use.

This is fun.  More questions?  Thoughts?

———————————————-

Jeff,

I’ve been reading your posts on sermons with interest.  I would like to offer a contrary opinion (or as you like to say “push back”).  I will start by accepting your definition of a sermon as a weekly time “when the leader of a congregation stands before a large group and delivers a prepared message” to be the foundation of this discussion.  While that is not an academically approved definition (and one I think is shockingly, unfairly slanted toward your perspective) it is your blog so we will play by your rules.  But I would ask that in this debate you assume the sermons being delivered are of high quality.  No fair judging a “tool” (as you call it) by its worst examples.  If you accept my terms of debate, let’s begin.

You had three conclusions in your first article:

  1. Sermons “turn your worship service into a pep-rally.”
  2. Sermons “encourage the idol of consumerism to grow deeper roots in the church by expecting nothing from the people but their attention for 30 minutes to an hour a day.”
  3. Sermons “devalue the lay people by elevating the clergy as the person that everyone else needs to listen to.”

I shall argue against these one at a time in reverses order.  First…

On Leadership and the Devaluing of Lay People by the Sermon

You (and others like you) often rail against centralized leadership because you believe it exalts some individuals in a harmful way over others.  I say that it doesn’t have to be that way.  If leaders serve out of humility they will not be inappropriately glorified.

You would have us believe that church bodies can exist in a culture of leaderless chaotic harmony, each member simply working together under the banner of Christ.   While that sounds like a beautiful arrangement, it is a fantasy and not a Biblical picture of leadership.  It will end horribly.

Does Romans 13:1 not say, “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.”?

And does Hebrews 13:17 not say, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.”?

Congregations need leadership.  While, yes, each member of a local Body is empowered by the Spirit and connected to God.  When they come together there must be an organizing principle that keeps them united and that leadership needs the ability to speak to the congregation as a whole on a routine basis.  The sermon is that time.

To approach this in a slightly different way, if a “church” is a group of Christ followers on mission together (another definition I’ve seen you use) then are not common goals and a unified direction necessary for that team?  In our modern culture we are bombarded by a million influences a day.  The sermon is the one time during the week that the church leadership gets a voice.  If you do away with that time, what is to hold the group together in a united mission?  Personal relationship may work in small groups like your Thingy, but once the congregation grows beyond 30 adults what is to keep all of the members on the same page if not the weekly sermon?

Finally, I will concede your point that lectures are becoming an out dated style of information delivery.  At the same time, how many other aspects of the church in America are also outdated?  You (and others like you) have argued that buildings need to go, approaches to discipleship need to be change, how we train youth and children need to be different, our approach to mission must be reconsidered, and the office of clergy should be tossed out.  Now you also want us to get rid of our one form of mass communication?  How would you propose we make all the philosophical changes you argue for without the weekly connection moment of a sermon?  You ask too much at one time.  You need to choose your reform.

Leadership is a necessary piece of that Body.  Its existence does not devalue the members of a congregation.  Sermons are the time in which that leadership gets to speak to the congregation.  It is necessary and cannot be done away with.

I am looking forward to your response.

Sincerely,

Pastor Locke

———————————————

Dear Pastor Locke,

Thank you for your response to Jeff’s posts.  I look forward to our discussion.  Debates like these are a healthy practice in the church.

Let me begin with our terms.  Jeff’s definition of “sermon” may not be the academically approved one, but much of America’s laity would describe it thus and it should suffice for our purposes.  I imagine we will work toward the better and the best.  Please note, too, my arguments will take a different form than his.

As for your request that only high quality sermons be considered, is that not begging the question?  My task is not to explain why good sermons are actually bad.  The nature of the sermon is precisely what is at issue.  The relevant questions are:  What do we make of many churches’ tacit assumption that quality sermons are a necessary condition for God to move?  And, adjusting the lens, why in many churches is a pastor’s speaking ability used as a barometer to measure life in the body?

To be clear, I will not trot out, however instructive, a line of cringe-inducing sermons commonly heard in the church.  Nor is it my goal to convince you or our readers that sermons are by definition bad.  They are, it seems to me, merely raw material—not fundamentally good or bad.  Nor will I prescribe “Discard the sermon” as a panacea for the church.  I do plan to examine both the mindset behind the Sunday morning sermon mandate and the taboo against choosing a different format.

Indeed, you helpfully lay out some of that mindset in your letter.  In response to Jeff’s assertion that sermons “devalue lay people and elevate the clergy,” you offer a defense of leadership:  humble leaders mitigate the need to elevate, Scripture enjoins believers to submit to leadership, and leadership provides direction and unity to the church body.  The sermon, you say, is the vessel in which the leadership, nearly always the pastor, communicates with the congregation to articulate and expound upon the church’s mission.

All told, you suggest the church, properly understood, is an institutional system in which humble servant-leaders guide a congregation into ever-deeper commitment with God.  The sermon is the organizing principle, during which the congregation is reminded of that call and encouraged in their place in it.

That all sounds good so far as it goes (and in my next letter I hope to say how far that is), but I have a question.  If your picture is true—and I hope I have been faithful in my assessment of your arguments—then why, despite great effort to organize the system around these principles, is the church in America not consistently producing changed people?  Your ideal system is already the system for the vast majority of churches in America, but it isn’t working.  Why do our churches remain distressingly impotent?

I will take it a step further.  A few days ago a friend and I calculated how many sermons we have heard over the course of our lives.  Not counting life’s first twelve years and subtracting a few weeks per year for vacation, I, at twenty-six years old, have heard over 600 sermons in my life.  A forty-five-year-old?  Over 1,500.  A sixty-year-old?  2,208.  An eighty-year-old has heard 3,128 sermons in his life!

And that is only one sermon a week, not counting podcasts!  Our culture, especially my generation, consumes sermons at such a rate that we may be the most sermonized generation in world history.  And, according to the prevailing wisdom, this is a good thing.  But why then, even in the most sermonized culture in the world, is it still so rare to find a body of believers that look like those bands of revolutionary Christians found throughout history—those strange people who turned the world on its head wherever they went?

And so I ask:  What if the church’s impotence occurs, not in spite of our systems and sermons, but precisely because of them?

Regards,
Brady

——————————————–

Brady,

Let’s say that I, a good food loving American, eat three meals a day (not including snacks).  By the time that I am twenty-six I will have eaten 28,470 meals.  By the time I’m forty-five I’ll have eaten 49,275 meals.  And by the time I’m sixty-five I’ll have eaten 71,175 meals.   Now I remember very few of these meals.  Some stand out in my head, but most are just a blur; yet still they all nourished my body.  The sermons I’ve experienced over my lifetime are the same.  Some stand out in my head.  Most I don’t remember at all.  But in the moment, all nourished my spiritual life.

So can we agree that the problem is not necessarily the amount of sermons one intakes but rather the absence of life change or growth from that intake?  As you phrase the question, “…why, despite great effort to organize the system around these principles, is the church in America not consistently producing changed people?”

Now you (Brady) and Jeff would place the blame for this lack of growth on the church institution, specifically sermons.  As Jeff phrased it, “(sermons) encourage the idol of consumerism to grow deeper roots in the church by expecting nothing from the people but their attention for 30 minutes to an hour a week.”  Or as you said, “What if the church’s impotence occurs, not in spite of our systems and sermons, but precisely because of them?”

If this were true, that the church institution develops consumers – specifically sermons, than church people would be greater consumerists than the unchurched.  We would see consumerism flowing from the church to society.  Those that listened to more sermons would be the most consumeristic of all.

This is not the case.  Quite the opposite in fact.  Our society is extremely consumeristic.  It is difficult to take five steps in any direction without being marketed to in some way.  It is not the church that has produced consumers.  Consumerism is the idol of our age.  Consumers are the raw material the church is given to work with.

This is true regardless of what tool (as Jeff would say) you are using.  I’ve seen consumer plagued house churches, consumer plagued small groups, even consumer plagued homeless ministries. (Ever offer to give a homeless man a meal and have him tell you he doesn’t want it, he would rather have something else?)  Consumerism will plagued any tool the church uses regardless of what it is.  Every innovation you make will do battle with consumerism the same way that sermons do.

It is not chocolate’s fault that people are fat.  Chocolate is awesome.  People are fat because they misuse and abuse chocolate.  The answer to societal obesity is not “DOWN WITH CHOCOLATE!”  The answer is to teach people their responsibility in their eating habbits.

So once again I say, stop trying to strip from us the one tool in our arsenal that provides leaders the opportunity to speak to their people about living counter-culturally.

We live in dangerous times. The idols of the age rage against us.  In the name of innovation you would leave us empty handed as we walk into battle.

I say no.  I say we do not need to enter the fray with untested tools.  We do not need innovation for innovations sake.  Rather, let us take up the traditions that have faithfully served us in past times of cultural crisis.  Let us charge the hill armed to defeat the enemy of consumerism armed with tools we have trusted in the past.  We will not retreat and give in to the idols of the age.  No.  We shall instead speak the truth from the pulpit and call our people to new life.

Sincerely,

Pastor Locke

————————————————–

Dear Pastor Locke,
During the Reformation, Luther had this phenomenal insight into the controversy about the church’s use of religious icons:  to venerate one was to give it power, but to destroy it was also to give it power.  Therefore, despite the church’s abuses and the iconoclast’s iconoclasm, Luther rightly insisted icons were not prescriptively bad.  They were raw material.  The heart mattered more.  And he was not going to replace one law with another.  For people who prefer to live by a rigid set of set of rules, Luther’s distinction can be extremely dissatisfying.  Jesus, speaking fifteen hundred years earlier, made a similar distinction when he followed the paradigm-shifting blessings we call the Beatitudes by reminding Israel of its covenant:  “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”  Yet rather than provide more ways for the people to fall short, Jesus gave a comprehensive discourse on the nature of true righteousness:  a life organized around the heart inclined toward God, which lives with full tenderness toward all.

In Jesus’ day, as in Luther’s, religious life accepted only certain modes of seeking righteousness and ensuring one’s well-being before God.  Because human effort alone often informed and sustained these efforts, the natural result was a religious structure based on a soul-crushing, pharisaical moralism that often dismissed authentic expressions of faith.  The leaders of the time effectively developed a religious caste system, never letting people forget their place in relation to an unattainable holiness.  This system, of course, was a far cry from what Jesus had in mind.

The same system, unfortunately, also organizes many of today’s churches.  We have replaced the fresh wind of God’s spirit with a hermetically sealed vault of rules and regulations, prescribing procedures for everything from accepted readings of certain scriptures to political positions.  Enforcing it all is the prevailing assumption that there exists a hierarchy of who is most capable to mold and then live out these prescriptions.  Whatever the intention, there should be little argument the presence of such a system, however polished, is a key factor in the mass exodus out of the church.

The tendency for those who leave yet remain Christian, though, is to become another kind of consumer:  a Christian who traffics in being ironic about and dismissive of the church’s attempts to be the church.  I have been that Christian, and for that reason I must make another distinction for our current debate.  Simply put, neither overbearing systems nor bitter criticism please God, for both hearts are far from Him.  And He claims the heart.

The church in America has indeed messed up in many areas, including its reliance and insistence on having (insert adjective) sermons.  But I challenge those of us who might describe ourselves with the names Jeff shared to remain tender with the church, for so often to see her brokenness is to see the brokenness (and hurt) in ourselves.  On the other hand, to the leaders and laity in the church, I challenge you to ask yourselves if you think God is really, truly pleased with what he sees in His house.  If so, then how do you explain so many earnest Christians’ dissatisfaction and pain?

In any case, I challenge us all to gather as the Church and admit our brokenness and cry out to our God to save us from pride and self-reliance.  My guess is He would jump at the chance to be faithful to us, especially as we learn to rely less on our own strength—or that of a leader or a particular form—and instead confess our brokenness and wait on Him for our answers.  We no longer need to secure outcomes for ourselves.  Our Father is a giver of good gifts and He cherishes his children and makes them whole.

This heart posture would resolve much.  If we seek God with open hearts, I imagine many forms will change.  For we the people are the church.  And yet, forms that remain will continue with renewed life.  Maybe God will raise up some dynamic new speakers for the new expressions of the Gospel in this city.  That would be awesome.  The beautiful thing about a heart inclined toward God is its openness to Him no matter how He moves, and its non-defensiveness if things look weird or go wrong.  May none of us be wedded to anything but Jesus.

In the end, may we all have the eyes to see and the ears to hear.  For as long as good news is proclaimed to the poor and prisoners are set free and the blind see and the lame walk, and as long as the poor are blessed and the mourning are comforted and the meek inherit the earth and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are filled and the merciful are shown mercy and the pure in heart see God and the peacemakers are His children and the persecuted partake in His kingdom—then Amen and Hallelujah!

At that point, no one will care what the form it takes—for He will be King.  May it be so in Baltimore.

Blessings and love,
Brady

————————————————

For a month now a debate around the weekly practice of sermons has been raging on this blog. Thank you to everyone who left comments and thoughts. A special thanks goes out to Brady for representing the “Against Sermons” position.  I hope the debate challenged your thinking.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m Pastor Locke.  Brady and I were having coffee together a few days after my first two posts on sermons went up on the blog.  As we discussed the issue we found a shared desire to have a good debate about the topic, but I didn’t want to force anyone into the position of writing for my blog about a subject I had already strongly criticized.  Therefore I decided to take the “Pro-Sermon” position in the debate and Brady agreed to take the “Against.”

Playing the other side of the chess board was not difficult.  I love the church.  While I am disenfranchised with it’s current models, I grew up in those models.  I gave my life to Christ in through those models.  I was discipled in those models.  I went to college and then seminary to learn those models.  I’ve spent ten years promoting and developing those models as a career.  And every time I preach this exact debate rages in me.

Pastor Locke’s defense of sermons is very much a part of who I am.

Many people assume that dissenters/innovators (depending on your perspective) like Brady and I are angry at the church.  Because we call for change, often with impassioned language, they assume that we hate the way things are.  This couldn’t be further from the truth.  As Brady expressed eloquently, our desire for innovation flows from our deep love for the church.  Please know, any time I point to something and name it as “broken” or I call for something to be changed there is a deep grieving process that has gone on in me first.

In high school I attended Oak Park Baptist Church in New Orleans La.  My pastor was Gail DeBoard and my youth pastor was Ron Holeman.  They were/are an amazing men.  Sunday after Sunday I sat and listened to them preach.  I devoured each sermon.  Every time one of them said something that challenged me, I wrote it in the front cover of my Bible (or sometimes in the margins).   That Bible still sits on a shelf in my office.   For the last 16 years, whenever I’ve become discouraged or confused I pull it out and return to the thoughts of those men.

So I get it.

I understand why people are passionate about preaching.

At the same time I recognize that our culture has radically changed since I was in high school, and is continuing to change at a rapid pace.  If we do not critically examine our practices (no matter how beloved they are or how great an impact they had upon us) then we will doom ourselves to irrelevancy.

The routine weekly delivery of a sermon from the same person is a practice I have struggled deeply with.  I think needs to change.  I think, although it was an effective tool for me in my youth, in our present culture the practice has negative unintended by-products.

But that is just my opinion.  The point of the debate was to help you find your thoughts on the issue.

Let me know if you enjoyed this and if there is another topic in church world you want us to tackle in this style.

Maybe next time I’ll get to play myself.

Thanks for reading,

Jeff

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