Today’s post will conclude this series on reimagining the sermon and will only make sense if you’ve read Part One and Part Two. I’ll continue to structure today’s post with a few statements on what our current paradigm says about our church culture; what we do often says more about what we believe than what we say (see JR Woodward’s excellent book, Creating a Missional Culture: Equipping the Church for the Sake of the World for more on how our culture communicates our values). I’d love to hear your creative ideas and how you respond to these challenges in your context, especially as these posts are only a start and I’d love this to be a conversation that provokes all of us to deeper examination of our gatherings.
See here for statements one through three.
3. Discussion is not an important part of the learning process
When lecture is primary format and no time for interaction is allowed, we are not so subtly communicating what we think about learning. I’ll offer my suggestions below, under number four.
4. Learning is a passive, consumeristic act
This goes hand in hand with number three. By creating a gathering, where for the majority of the time we create consumers, we are showing that we value what American culture at large does, the act of consuming. It is interesting to me that many pastors and practical theologians will critique the worship through singing in churches as being too consumer driven, yet they never think to turn their gaze upon the sermon that has in many ways mirrored this pattern.
What if the sermon were shorter and there were some type of open discussion period where anyone could offer questions or their own insights into the text? It seems to me that this is what Paul envisioned in Corinthians. Yes, it would be messier and more difficult. It would mean giving up “power” from the pulpit and learning the skill of facilitation and not just dissemination. There would still be a facilitator to guide the conversation and wrap it up at the end and guide the gathering into a time of worshipful response.
Another even more communal way I’ve actually done this before is to have people sit around tables and during the sermon stop periodically for discussion around the tables. Then there was a time for people to share with the larger group anything they thought was exciting or insightful. This again reinforces the value of community and the priesthood of all believers in the gathering. (I’m not discounting the difficulty in shifting as pastors and as gatherers who are used to a particular way of worshipping to something new. The question I’d pose is this: what does shifting say about our values and how important is this as a counter-cultural witness?)
5. Learning biblical truth is an impersonal process of “information dump” (this is only exacerbated by video screens piping in the sermon from Timbuktu)
This is spoken not only by the length and importance of a sermon in our worship gatherings, but by the content of the sermons themselves. Many sermons are long expositions of a piece of biblical text, going in great detail and minutiae or they offer three practical points of application that could be given by Oprah or Dr. Phil. While the latter doesn’t merit comment, as a theologian I obviously think that understanding the biblical text is important, but is the purpose of our worship gathering primarily information or formation?
Scripture does contain information, but that information is for the purpose of spiritual formation and not purely information. A reintegration of the two is needed and a shift towards formative sermons that place us in the biblical narrative and create space for us to be affected by the Spirit in our emotions and wills as well. We all encounter countless amounts of information everyday and that shows that information alone won’t lead to change, yet that is our focus. As pastors we need to remember that a good sermon touches head, heart, and will at the same time; only by moving beyond mere information to the latter two is real formation and life change taking place. I have to admit I struggle with this shift as a thinker, so my practical advice is limited to sermons being a place for connecting our story to God’s story and seeing our place within God’s narrative. This touches not just the information part of our minds, but our imaginations as well, giving us visions of what our lives could be and touching our emotions in ways that sheer information cannot. I’d love thoughts on this shift as I struggle with it.
When our churches organizational structure is setup in such a way that it is “Sunday-centric” we re-inforce all of the above by saying that what happens on Sunday in this non-communal, information driven, consumeristic atmosphere is the most important part of being the church. I want to challenge you to get involved in this conversation, push back, but ultimately to use your imagination and allow the Spirit to give you visions of worship that allow for community and for the primary focus to be Jesus Christ and being formed in His image.