Monday, October 25, 2010

Are sermons still an effective means of communication?

This is a question that I have asked myself from time to time. I have sat through enough church services and looked around and wondered if anybody was really listening. Or, if they are listening, how much will they remember once they leave the sanctuary? Will they be able to recall anything the pastor said by Wednesday? I have observed individuals working very hard, who are obviously prepared, and are making little to no progress with the audience.

As a biblical scholar I find it hard to sit through many sermons. I am not referring to those times when someone massacres a text with something masquerading as hermeneutics. That is another topic. What I mean is, as one who works day-in and day-out with the text it is difficult to listen to a message that often has little connection to the week before or what is coming next week. Its hard to approach the Bible like a MTV video (when they still showed videos). Yes, it is all music, but it is not necessarily tied together with any significance? And while it is entertaining I am not sure I really came away with a grasp of what the song was talking about.

Don't get me wrong. I am not suggesting that we do away with sermons completely. I think a well constructed homily on a topic still has a place in the life of the church. They are particularly effective and appropriate at weddings, funerals and other occasions. But I wonder if it is a useful means of communicating every Sunday. Might our time be better spent in the study of a particular text in a the fashion more often associated with Sunday school? Might people be better educated and more knowledgeable of the Bible if they were actually drawn into the text rather than sitting back and watching what sometimes ends up being a performance? And it is the person's performance more often than not that determines if it was a "good message" rather than if we actually learned something.

I wonder how many pastors also feel this way? They believe in the need to educate those who come to them week-in and week-out, but the truth is they are as uninspired by what they preach as the people to whom they are preaching. My own dissatisfaction with this approach means that I rarely accept invitations to preach anymore. I am happy to go and teach a class, but rarely a one-off 30 minute lesson.

Perhaps this is evidence that I am more postmodern than I care to admit. But I wonder if we really are helping people be giving them a prepackaged Bible lesson every week. Are we preparing them for what life will bring their way? Are we teaching them to read and study the Bible for themselves? Or are we merely being the person who hands out a weekly ration of Bible sprinkled with just enough guilt to make them come back for more?


  1. I can relate only my personal feelings on the issue. I love teaching, but I hate sermons. I try to concentrate in church but just end up spending the time reading marginally related commentaries on my iPad instead. Five minutes after the sermon's over, I couldn't tell you what it was about.

    Over the course of my life, I've probably heard 2,000 sermons — and I'm thirty-two. If I'd put those hours to productive use, I could have learnt two more foreign languages.

  2. I am interested in the study of early christianity, especially the creation and formative years. perhaps the first 200. To show you some of the stuff I have been collecting, and trying to organize, take a look at these two pages, and see if anything interests you;

    I am interested in convos on anything in the early christianity general areas, what are you interested in at the moment? If this is something you are interested in feel free to contact me by email.


  3. I don't disagree with you. Sometimes it can be painful to sit through a sermon. However, you wrote, "Might our time be better spent in the study of a particular text in a the fashion more often associated with Sunday school? Might people be better educated and more knowledgeable of the Bible if they were actually drawn into the text rather than sitting back and watching what sometimes ends up being a performance?"
    What would this look like in a church of 100, 500, 1000, or more people? How would you present it to a group of people who no longer hold pastoral authority in any esteem? Just some food for thought...

  4. Mike,

    I am not sure pastoral authority is a problem here, but I am willing to here your thoughts.

    As far as the size of the church, I admit that I am more in favor of smaller churches. However, I still think effective teaching can happen in a large church context. It would simply be a matter of there being more than one "teaching" pastor.

    I am constantly amazed at how much people really want to learn and dig-in. I taught a class last winter that tackled some pretty tough stuff and the people were engaged and excited for more. I think we can do better.

  5. Perhaps, pastoral authority isn't the correct way to express what I meant. Maybe more along the lines of people accepting a pastor as an authority on whatever they are speaking about. It seems that many, particularly the so-called post moderns are less willing to accept someone else's word on a subject, including the scripture.

  6. Mike,

    I see what you mean. On the one hand it is a problem since, as note, many do not see the pastor as an authority. On the other hand, I wonder if we can use that as an advantage. Rather than stand up and declare what the word of the Lord is, perhaps we should be in the pew with the congregation trying to learn and explore with them. The well-trained pastor could serve as a first among equals.

  7. I enjoy a good sermon--something which both informs and inspires me to do something, to give more of my life over to Christ (of which I've only heard a couple in the past few years). However, it does seem quite problematic today that most sermons are taught to a passively listening crowd. No Bibles open (the passage is projected onto a screen), no pens, no paper, no notes. People who listen only remember about 20% of what we hear. That's a lot of wasted time, for both preacher and parishoner, if we don't encourage active participation throughout the sermon.

  8. I remember for one of my seminary projects I asked church members to name 3 specific sermons in the church that had a dramatic impact on his or her life (not one person could name 3 though some of them I am sure had heard 1,000+). The next question was to name 3 specific people in the church that had a dramatic impact on his or her life...100% could answer that question.

    I don't think sermons are useless and they do facilitate growth, but the church needs to put a HUGE emphasis on relationships and "growing together" through small groups, support groups, ABF's, service projects, etc, etc, etc.

  9. John,

    Great question; I think it depends on what type of "sermon" we are talking about. Oftentimes I can hear a "sermon" and think; man, this text is so much more interesting than this!

    More and more, I am hearing pastors speak in a way that is more conversational, more story oriented, more relational, more connected to things that are actually happening in people's lives. Those kinds of "sermons" resonate more with me.

    The reality is that for most people in a church, the scripture they get in church, and in a sermon, is the only reflective treatment of scripture they will get all week. We still need guides in the faith. But I do think that the way the sermon is done is undergoing a radical change. The neat, clean, three-point and conclusion, moral-of-the-story sermon is fading. At least in my opinion.

  10. Well, John, my friend, since I prepare sermons and preach every Sunday, I suppose I should weigh in.

    I do believe that sermons are still an effective means of communication, but one needs to ask in what way? My take on this is that since in recent memory, psychological modes of pastoral ministry have taken center stage, apostolic modes of ministry have been neglected, which means that good preaching has been neglected in favor of "I'm OK; you're OK sermons.

    The sermon is not the be all and end all of Christian discipleship. It goes hand-in-hand with Sunday school and Bible studies and ministries to those in need. I think the problem is that we want the sermon to do too much and therefore we end up expecting too little.

    Along with this are too many pastors who are in chaplain mode of ministry and who therefore are simply not good preachers. We need more apostolic oriented preachers. Unfortunately, that will not happen until we change our mode of emphasis in reference to pastoral ministry.

    As far as the postmodern thing goes... I am the first to affirm the significance of postmodernism, but when I hear a young postmodern say, "We don't like to be preached at" I want to say in response, "Who are you that you think you have it all figured out?"

    So, in my humble view, is preaching still effective? You bet it is, but it's not the be all and end all.

    And if I may offer some advice to you, my friend... I regret that you accept few invitations to preach anymore. You are a disciple of Jesus and you have the expertise in NT that many do not have. You need to offer your abilities and your gifts to the Body of Christ, even in the form of proclamation. Any Sunday you are available, I would love to have you fill my pulpit and bring the gospel to my congregation.

    They would indeed be blessed!

  11. Allan, I agree with much of what you are saying. But as you say, there is so much more we can and should do. In many ways, you make a good case for what I am saying. Sermons are good, but they are not the sole vehicle for communicating to and challenging people.

  12. I appreciate sermons from very few preachers. Most sermons I here are terrible (possibly including mine). The best of the best communicate in a way that makes the sermon a life-changing event. So, I think the sermon will always be with us.

    At the same time, I WHOLEHEARTEDLY agree that adults are far more capable of serious engagement with the text than most of us pastors give them credit for. Many sermons are fluff when the people would prefer profundity. When you led our small group retreat on a serious and complex topic, the people ate it up.

    I led four house churches for two years in Phoenix, AZ, and our discussions were among the best "sermons" I have ever heard. On the other hand, I also saw the need for one person to proclaim something from time to time.

    So, I think the best of both worlds can be found with the caveat that, again, sermons are going to have to get far more intellectually challenging and inspiring in order to remain relevant.

  13. Sermons work against community, fellowship, and the Christian use of gifts. Going to church every Sunday to get together should be replaced by a meal, celebrating Jesus' death, where everyone fellowships and contributes in some way (even if it is just talking about their week, what they are leaning, thankful for, etc.). Think about how far from early Christian praxis we are when people think the assembly of the church should largely consist of one man sharing his opinions about life and the Bible! Surely there is a place for teachers in the church, but the majority of time at each gathering of the body should not be that place.

    Further, mere public reading of scripture and exposition of the actual theology *of* the scriptures themselves, rather than elaboration of one's own theology, should be the substance of most teaching.

    Is there really ANYTHING even remotely identical to the preacher in our Bibles? If so, where?

  14. Try reading Pagan Christianity by Frank Viola and find out about the origin of the sermon and its effectiveness