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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Anti-Sermonite

This probably makes me a bad Christian, but I don't believe in sermons. I've been hearing them all my life. I've heard good ones, bad ones, long ones, and . . . less long ones. But I'm just not convinced they really have any place as a mainstay of the Sunday worship service.

Teaching is important. It is, it really is. But in its present form, I don't see how it qualifies as worship. I know, I know, it looks nice. Spend 40 minutes or so talking about God, that's worshipful, right? Well . . . let's look at what I classify as the three kinds of sermons.

The Topical Sermon
This is the one where the preacher has a message he wants to tell about X subject, and then searches through the Bible for verses that support his ideas on said topic. The pastor will tell you this is worship because he's exhorting his congregation to live worshipful lives. But topical preaching isn't worship. Not really. It's the pastor saying, "God is so great. His Word supports all my theories." Kinda seems to elevate the pastor over God. The whole "I've got something to say, and I'm gonna use God to help me say it" thing is not my idea of worship.

Personal Showcase Sermon
This is the one a lot of televangelist types like to use, but even the most small-time preacher can fall into the trap. In the personal showcase sermon, a preacher basically talks about himself--his life, his funny anecdotes, his kids, his tales of faith and valor and all things holy. Sometimes he'll even reference his spectacular sins, the ones he committed before he was converted in a shaft of sparkling gold light. He'll usually mention God in there, too, but in the casual "God and I are buddies, and we hope you can learn from us and one day join us here on the Mount of Transfiguration . . . but I'm not holding my breath" kind of way. Uh . . . not worship.

Expository Preaching
Bible scholars like this one a lot, but I'm not a fan, even though the idea sounds nice. The biblical text is rich with meaning, so the expository preacher will spend upwards of an hour unpacking all the deep layers of context and meaning and applications found in just a few verses. It's meant to be a testament to their heartfelt love for the Word of God and the infinite truth found therein. That's worship, right? That's helpful teaching, right? Ahem . . . no and no. With few exceptions, pastors that preach from a passage of Scripture tend to lose the forest for the trees. The typical expositional sermon starts with the pastor reading the passage in its entirety. Usually takes about a minute. They then spend the next 45 minutes trying to redefine everyone's understanding of what was just read. I'm sorry, but if I spend a grand total of 90 seconds reading a Bible verse out loud and 45 minutes expositing my observations, interpretations, and applications of what I believe the text means, doesn't it seem like just a bit too much of the focus is placed on my words? The underlying message is, "God, I love your Word. And I'm sure that if you had the time, you would have explained yourself a little more clearly. But don't worry. I'll take it from here."

In my falsely humble opinion, the sermon is the undoing of the modern Christian mind. Rather than encouraging people to read and study the Bible under the influence of the Holy Spirit, pastors are unwittingly training their listeners to stop thinking for themselves. Regardless of the method, I think most sermons wind up being the reproduction of a preacher's personal Bible study. The study was helpful for the pastor, but it can be harmful for the person who now thinks "There's no need to study the passage because it's just been done for me!" On top of that, the big-picture messages of the Bible get lost in the details. The simple truths get lost in complex extractions. The calls to humility get lost in our pride. The prophecies become obscured by small-minded agendas.

So what do I recommend pastors do? Cut your sermon time in half. Double the time you spend reading the Word of God aloud, free of commentary. Give your congregation a little credit. Trust the Holy Spirit.

. . . he said, longwindedly.

For a more reliable discussion on the topic, go here.

13 comments:

  1. preach it! oh wait, that's probably not the response you're looking for. totally with you though.

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  2. I really liked this. And I may write more after I take some time and study it, at which point I'll exposit it to you, and tell you what I think you actually meant to say...

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  3. I read this several days ago and have been thinking about what bothers me so much about what you wrote.

    Then I realized: this sounds like a product review from a consumer. I don't know how to reconcile that with worship.

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  4. Well, I guess my response would be . . . I don't think you can reconcile it with worship, because I don't believe it is worship. I may be way off base (it happens regularly) but I don't see the modern sermon as being worship directed toward God. It is directed toward the congregation. I don't even think pastors are attempting to worship. Most sermons have application as their end goal. If it were worship, a sermon's end goal would be to glorify God, no? Instead, they aim to provide the congregation with the service of telling them how to apply the Word of God to their lives. In essence, they are positioning their sermons as products intended for consumers. That's not my intent, it's theirs.

    I'm not saying that exercise is bad or that pastors don't do a good job of executing their objectives. There are a lot of good sermons out there. I guess the problem is, sermons have been elevated as the cornerstone of the worship service, and I think that skews worship to become a human-directed exercise. I feel like it shoves God and His Word aside like a bystander rather than the central focus of our worship. I don't think the sermon, as it exists today, belongs in the place we put it.

    Again . . . the primary issue here is not the quality of the sermons. It is their very nature and role that I'm criticizing.

    I understand your unease with the idea of criticizing worship, and that's good. But I feel I'm criticizing what amounts to be the absence of worship.

    Still, thanks for letting me know. I appreciate the comment.

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  5. I see where you are coming from on this. I have read it several times this week, and I get a better feel for what you're saying each time.

    This all centers on a definition of worship. It's semantics to an extent. I mean, reading/sermons are still worship, even though they aren't singing or communion or testimony or anything else. But I like your gist for several reasons.

    I think the comment about product reviews is more telling than even Veronica knew, because she kind of made your point. You aren't reviewing because you're TRYING to be a consumer, you're reviewing it because the Western church has widely become a business peddling it's wares. It seems very close-minded to frown on someone who wants something to be MORE worshipful.

    I think studying the word can be worship. I think I am glorifying God when I attempt to know His word more, because I'm showing Him I think it's important, and I'm being obedient. I don't think that we HAVE to lose the worship-ness of that at church just because it goes from individual to communal. I think it's yet another example of how we have to always be mindful of where our focus is.

    But you've hit the nail on the head in that the modern sermon has essentially made people lazy. People feel as though listening to a sermon a week on Sunday is their "learning", and don't do anything on their own. They take a pastor's word for everything, instead of being Berean-like in their self-study. But that's nothing new. People are always trying to get by doing as little as possible. We like our legalisms here in America, and anything that makes us feel like we've "done our duty" satisfies us.

    I think pastors operate on a "hopeful" basis in their teaching. They are HOPING that their congregation is testing what they as a pastor say, and they are hoping that people are studying on their own. But what this blog adeptly points out, most people aren't. So does that make the sermon bad, or the congregation bad? Maybe both, at times, I guess.

    I love the idea of reading more from the word, with no explanation. It could happen at several times in a service, woven in with other elements of worship. That would be great. Pastors could be more like Paul, exhorting people to grow and learn and love and live righteously. Providing the example of how you should live to your congregation. I mean, we obviously need them. The church needed Paul. The church needed direction, and it needed Paul's "opinion" on doctrines and theology to combat the forces of darkness that were always pressing in on it.

    But that still doesn't fix the fact that a large amount of "believers" are never in the word and want to have their milk spoon fed to them...I think the whole issue in this blog stems from that. Your problems can be directly traced back to a lazy Church. I don't think you'd have these problems if we were all as vigilante as we're asked to be.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Sounds like you could write a book on the Codependent Church. Seriously, I'm as guilty as anyone of being lazy. But another problem I see is that we want our pastor to fill a role in our lives that should be filled by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We want something, someone, we can see. We want to trust God. Sometimes it's easier to trust our pastor's counsel. We want to glorify Christ, but it feels more concrete to praise the pastor's great leadership. We want to yield to the whispers of the Holy Spirit, but we prefer an audible voice with a microphone in front of it. And all those services a pastor provides are great . . . but it can be so hard to tell the difference between a pastor acting as a vessel of God's grace and a person of frail faith using him as a substitute for God's grace.

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  7. All too true. So where is that balance do you think? Because if we were to observe Paul with strong believers, we'd probably think he was fine. But if we saw how potentially a weak believer "worshipped" Paul, how woudl we handle that? Would we tell Paul that the role of church leader is ruined because it causes weak people to do wrong things? Or is that the fault of the weakling (who could be either a new believer, lazy, or not a believer at all)? Do we judge the necessity of pastors and their sermons by the weakest in a congregation or the strongest? Or is it a concept on it's own that cannot stand regardless of who you're talking about?

    In which case is our admiration of people like Paul misplaced? Or is it just another example of the kind of admiration a kid has for a dad? How do you draw the line between whether someone has healthy "iron sharpening iron" admiration/relationship with a teacher, and one who has just misplaced their faith in a human being?

    We admire our earthly fathers, we admire our spiritual fathers, and we admire and glorify our heavenly father. Seems like everything is analogous, although not at the same extreme of course. But you know what I mean.

    I'm not actually questioning your blog or comments anymore as much as I'm trying to hone in on where it's all actually directed, if that makes sense? Cuz this is a fun topic...

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  8. Well, I just checked out 1 Corinthians 1-4 . . . and although it sounds like a cop out, it would be hypocritical to comment much beyond what is there. I'll post a link to it at the end of the original post. I'll leave it at this . . . it's important to acknowledge a proper distance between the glory and power of Christ and the gifts of His servants.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Good passage. I think, though, that all it shows is that whether or not a particular pastor is stepping outside his role is entirely based on a particular individual's opinion. We both agree on the fact that some pastor's go outside their mandate. But that isn't quite the same thing as saying sermons are bad. You know? Because Paul was pointing out how the immature Corinthian church was immaturely factioning in the name of various individuals. He wasn't saying that he wasn't going to preach the word to them out of fear that they would worship him above God. He preached intensely in the synagogue while he was there, and even in this letter is attempting to tell people how they should be reshaping their behavior. Of course he's pointing out how Christ is the end all and be all of everything, but the guy was a master of behavioral and doctrinal teaching. He was essentially always writing and preaching to people, encouraging them on how they should live and think. So how does this passage point out how sermons are a bad thing?

    The concept that no flesh shall glory in God's presence is obviously a powerful reminder that pastors and congregations should remember their place in the grand scheme of things. And it also probably eliminates altogether the #2 type of sermon you mentioned. But I don't think it eliminates all sermons as pointless acts. It just solidifies the idea that immature believers make for a weak and factioned church. Which is what they had in Corinth, and is what we have in America. We're a country full of people who haven't moved beyond milk, just like Paul said. So we worship preachers and make their sermons into more than they should be.

    Like I said, I love the idea of having more scripture reading. But there must still be a place for teachers, because Jesus is the great teacher. That symbolism has to be based not on the fact that teachers and their messages are bad, but that the position of preacher/teacher is necessary for a church as a whole, and probably for each individual church in some way. Like marriages show the relationship between Christ and the church, families and churches show that God also has an authoritative hierarchy established as well.

    What's more, not every person who sits in a pew is saved. And people will, ideally, be brought in or will be seeking a church on their own, where they will be looking for guidance on spiritual things. For people who don't already know Christ, there is benefit in have a time of teaching around a respected book that supposedly comes from this "Creator" himself.

    Which in the end just means that all we really need is to do it the way you said in the first place. Step back off the super long messages that place too much emphasis on a particular persons views (not because they're wrong necessarily, but because beyond a short exposition of any passage, and a following gospel reconciliation of it, nothing else is necessary). This would run less risk of enticing immature people to worship a preacher. But it doesn't negate the need for him altogether, it just requires a repositioning of his usefulness.

    Based on everything you've said, I still think this all comes back to a problem with individual believers. Just like Paul would not have had to write the letter to the Corinthians if they had been mature and focused on Christ, your blog would not have been necessary if people in the here and now would mature and focus on Christ above preachers and sermons. That in turn would change how preachers preach. It's all a cycle. It's just like our politicians. They lie because we want them to. Our preachers occupy a place they shouldn't because we're immature as congregations.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I think there is individual and corporate culpability. All the things you cited about individuals being lazy milk-lovers is valid. But I also think that churches in general have defaulted into its current tradition of using the sermon as the cornerstone of the worship service.

    Maybe there's good solid church tradition behind meeting every Sunday and listening to the pastor teach, preach, and so on. But the two major questions I have are:

    A) Is "Worship Service" the right term for our regular assembly together? If our intent is to get together and worship, which I think it ought to be, I think the sermon plays too big a role. If we're not designating the service as worship-only . . . then preach away. But I don't think that makes a lot of sense.

    I'm not sure I'm making a lot of sense.

    B) Why must it be a sermon, every week, same length, same style, same approach? I feel like that sends a message: don't touch the sermon. You can change the music from week to week. You can alternate between choir and praise band, organ and piano, sololist and quartet, instrumental and vocal. You can do a drama one week, a video the next, a baptism the next, and communion the next. But you don't. Touch. The Sermon. Again, the sermon is elevated as the most important part of our worship, and I don't agree with that.

    But I don't think sermons are bad . . . I just think they're misplaced as the centerpiece of the church's existence. Teaching is great. I love teaching, and there's a lot of good teaching done at churches. It's absolutely essential for the growth of a church. Yeah, it should augment personal Bible study, but good pastors are really wise, smart, godly, and talented. They have a responsibility to teach the Word and lead their congregations. But that doesn't mean the corporate worship should revolve around them.

    I think they're too much. As they exist, I think they divide our worship a bit. Sometimes just a wee bit, sometimes way too far in the pastoral direction.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I found all the answers to life's questions in this short bit on church by Jim Gaffigan. You probably have heard him...does the best bit on Hot Pockets ever made. This one addresses, among other things, how church services (albeit catholic masses) seem to drag on and on AND the uncomfortability of having a stranger tell you about Jesus. So it basically answers this blog and my blog on candy bags! Genius.

    http://youtube.com/watch?v=7ygJEgBRGlw

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  12. And I follow. I guess I don't really know why they're that "untouchable" either. You put it well in how you described it. It IS interesting how the LEAST interactive element of the service seems to hold the highest place...

    ReplyDelete
  13. Good passage. I think, though, that all it shows is that whether or not a particular pastor is stepping outside his role is entirely based on a particular individual's opinion. We both agree on the fact that some pastor's go outside their mandate. But that isn't quite the same thing as saying sermons are bad. You know? Because Paul was pointing out how the immature Corinthian church was immaturely factioning in the name of various individuals. He wasn't saying that he wasn't going to preach the word to them out of fear that they would worship him above God. He preached intensely in the synagogue while he was there, and even in this letter is attempting to tell people how they should be reshaping their behavior. Of course he's pointing out how Christ is the end all and be all of everything, but the guy was a master of behavioral and doctrinal teaching. He was essentially always writing and preaching to people, encouraging them on how they should live and think. So how does this passage point out how sermons are a bad thing?

    The concept that no flesh shall glory in God's presence is obviously a powerful reminder that pastors and congregations should remember their place in the grand scheme of things. And it also probably eliminates altogether the #2 type of sermon you mentioned. But I don't think it eliminates all sermons as pointless acts. It just solidifies the idea that immature believers make for a weak and factioned church. Which is what they had in Corinth, and is what we have in America. We're a country full of people who haven't moved beyond milk, just like Paul said. So we worship preachers and make their sermons into more than they should be.

    Like I said, I love the idea of having more scripture reading. But there must still be a place for teachers, because Jesus is the great teacher. That symbolism has to be based not on the fact that teachers and their messages are bad, but that the position of preacher/teacher is necessary for a church as a whole, and probably for each individual church in some way. Like marriages show the relationship between Christ and the church, families and churches show that God also has an authoritative hierarchy established as well.

    What's more, not every person who sits in a pew is saved. And people will, ideally, be brought in or will be seeking a church on their own, where they will be looking for guidance on spiritual things. For people who don't already know Christ, there is benefit in have a time of teaching around a respected book that supposedly comes from this "Creator" himself.

    Which in the end just means that all we really need is to do it the way you said in the first place. Step back off the super long messages that place too much emphasis on a particular persons views (not because they're wrong necessarily, but because beyond a short exposition of any passage, and a following gospel reconciliation of it, nothing else is necessary). This would run less risk of enticing immature people to worship a preacher. But it doesn't negate the need for him altogether, it just requires a repositioning of his usefulness.

    Based on everything you've said, I still think this all comes back to a problem with individual believers. Just like Paul would not have had to write the letter to the Corinthians if they had been mature and focused on Christ, your blog would not have been necessary if people in the here and now would mature and focus on Christ above preachers and sermons. That in turn would change how preachers preach. It's all a cycle. It's just like our politicians. They lie because we want them to. Our preachers occupy a place they shouldn't because we're immature as congregations.

    ReplyDelete

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