Saturday, September 26, 2009

Death By Sermon, Part One

*** Sermons. I got a crate full of 'em -- mostly my own. Some are on tapes (remember them?) and in digital file. I'll give you as many as you want -- free!! Just take your pick. Not that excited? Me either -- as in I don't even want to listen to me! Makes me wonder about the value of all these sermons after all. Do we really know why we sermonize or trust so much in sermons to produce growing Christians? Some thoughts follow...

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If he is like I once was, your pastor probably spends a large amount of time preparing a sermon for delivery each week. It's likely to be high up in the job description: "must be able to 'preach' (that is, to sermonize). Each week he or she must design sermons that are engaging, biblically sound, stimulating, well-illustrated and, hopefully, applicable to the real lives of their audience. To borrow a phrase from a friend, they must somehow pump out a continous stream of "new" (if not necessarily fresh) material.

Maybe this is one reason why good sermon-givers can be well paid. Those who sermonize well may have a lot to do with attracting a bigger audience to the church -- a phenomenon known, in some circles, as "church growth".

For reasons like these, sermons tend to be delivered by pros -- or at least people who are supposed to be pros. Our job is to listen to the pros and then critique them over a ham sandwich after church is over. While listening to the 1/2 hour to hour of "preaching", we aren't supposed to think about ham sandwichs or other lunch meats, or whether the Dodgers will go all the way in the post-season, or a host of other mind-occupying distractions. We are supposed to be listening to "the word" and "the word" is supposed to have impact. This impact is measured differently in various church cultures. A "good" sermon can get people to lift their hand while "every eye is closed and every head bowed". A really good sermon will actually get people to leave their seats and come to the "altar" (i.e. front of the church where the sermonizer is standing) or to go on their knees or to otherwise become available to the "ministry time" that follows the message.

Most of you will never really understand what the sermon-deliverer (usually the pastor) goes through every week once they have left the building. They know that a room full of people just surrendered a whole bunch of their precious weekend time and attention to them. They know that either they were "on" or not-so-on that particular day and that getting people to return and keep returning requires lots of "on" days. I mean, think of what the sermonizer is up against. It is, after all, exceedingly uncommon these days for people to sit still and listen to anyone speak -- especially when the sermon or teaching may require a half hour or more to deliver. Now multiply this week after week over a number of years. Now add in the fact that your intention is to ellicit deep and enduring spiritual and practical responses in your audience. Yikes! It's easy to see why "special music", videos, dramas and other sermon-boosters are put into the mix. It's also easy to see why excellent sermonizers are like rock stars with a rare and dazzling talent.

Excellent or not, the fact is that in most of our evangelical church services the sermon is the centerpiece of the worship service as in: "come for the sermon - stay for the worship". Sermons are centered on the Bible but, even so, a lot of believers don't even bother to bring their Bibles to church. They have often been trained not to do so by the "preachers". In many cases, the pastor or speaker has presumably gone through serious effort to prepare a fine feast for their audience so that their main duty is to sit back, relax, and enjoy the fruits of the sermonizer's labor! This is why many church services are not so much "worship" services as much as they are "sermon delivery systems". The musical worship before the message is often keyed to the sermon and the follow up worship music is meant to extend the emotional and spiritual impact of the spoken message, too. Man, we put a lot of stock in sermonizing! Man, we expect a lot from these messages! So why is their "shelf life" so seemingly short?


Andrew Faris said...

So, I know what you're getting at, and I know there's something to it.

But you need to make an actual point somewhere. Maybe in part 2?

I can already tell you ahead of time that the trouble you're going to run into is that the Bible is pretty pro-sermon in a number of places and a number of ways.


Bill Faris said...

I'm going to think about that last statement "the Bible is pretty pro-sermon" for awhile because I'm not sure what you mean by it. I see two things in Scripture: (1) teaching and instruction (including the "teacher" gift). I suspect, for example, that this may included some serious interaction with the audience; and (2) the proclimation of the prophets and spreading of the kerygma which, I suspect, is more like what evangelists do than pastors feeding their flocks.

That these things might not resemble the garden variety 25 minute weekly "sermon" of today is a question that deserves a closer look, in my opinion.

Did "instruction in the Apostles Doctrine", for example, look and sound like the sermon of today? Should we assume that the gift of teaching is best expressed as a weekly lecture to an silent audience? Does the so-called "sermon on the Mount" resemble the parade of what we hear on Christian radio? (Okay, that's an easy one -- but what should we take away from that?)

Finally, if I failed to "make an actual point", I apologize. Let me re-try. My point is that I suspect that weekly sermonizing, as commonly practiced in evangelical churches, is of dubious value. I introduced this point by sharing how my own weekly sermon recordings seem to be fairly disposible which makes me want to rethink a lot of what we have come to assume about sermons and their long-term value.

Hopefully others will feel free to agree or disagree with these points and share their thoughts.

Jason Coker said...

Wow Bill, these thoughts would get you into a little trouble in certain circles. Personally, as someone who was previously a paid "pro" I can resonate with what you've written here, and I too have significantly downgraded the weight given to sermonizing as a tool for discipleship - at least in our community.

Still, so far I can't let go of two things. 1) Preaching really is a vital biblical gift of the spirit, even if we have mis-directed it. I'm eager to land on a truly biblical form of missional preaching that remains culturally engaging. In my view, this kind of preaching would never happen in the gathering of believers formerly known as "worship" because, by definition, preaching is the proclamation of good news to those who haven't yet heard it.

2) I can't get past the fact that public-speaking is an incredibly powerful and persuasive art form. I've heard it referred to as "the skill that opens 10,000 doors." Since I can't find a valid reason to relegate it to the category of an inherently destructive use of force (say, like guns or television) I have to conclude that God would have us use it - probably in a variety of contexts, including gatherings of believers.

Yet as with #1 my question remains: how?

I've written a bit about this on my own blog recently if you're interested: