Having spent too many hours the last few weeks preparing a mediocre sermon for this past Sunday, I really resonated with some of Jeff Gauss’ thoughts in his post, “The Effectiveness of Sermons.” (I came across his post by way of Jan Bros’ blog.)
While I like to engage in the task of “prteaching,” a term coined by John Frye, I am becoming increasingly convinced that the role for preaching and teaching in the life of the local faith-community has become bloated. Way too many hours (and then in the case of salaried pastors, way too much money) is often spent on preparing and delivering a lecture/sermon that most people won’t remember or apply. From a straight cost-benefit analysis, the over-emphasis on preaching and teaching is a poor use of resources in the pursuit of spiritual formation.
Now that doesn’t mean we must eliminate preaching and teaching altogether. There must be a balance in our expression of worship or liturgy. And part of that balance is hearing God’s word read and taught. (And when I mean read and taught, I also mean not in the disconnected self-help style of many sermons.) But it must also be balanced with worshipful responses to the Word, with corporate prayers, with communion, with art, with service and with dialogue.
I think the role of preaching and teaching should be twofold: 1) re-imagining God’s people with the biblical vision of entering and living in God’s kingdom and 2) encouraging and equipping God’s people in the task of becoming people who actually do enter and live in God’s kingdom. Yet again (and I don’t think I can say this too much) the role of preaching and teaching must be part of a well-thought and prepared liturgy. Imagination for kingdom life must have response through worship and prayer as well as the actual entering and living the kingdom reality through communion and service.
Also, I think the sermons that are necessary for a balanced liturgy should both flow from the pastor’s own spiritual formation, yet be bigger than the pastor’s spiritual formation. First, sermons should primarily be the expression of the pastor’s apprenticeship to Christ, not the result of his or her occupational responsibility of sermon preparation. They should reflect who the pastor is becoming in his or her journey with Christ through the course of study, Scripture reading, prayers, silence, solitude, etc.
Second, sermons should be guided by something larger than the pastor’s personal study. This is why I’m so attracted to the Lectionary and Church calendar. They are NOT the lazy pastor’s way of finding weekly sermon texts. Quite the opposite. Each week’s texts discipline the pastor to remain immersed in and then offer the faith-community something larger than the latest book or the pastor’s favorite Bible passages.
Third, the sermons must come from other sources than just the pastor(s). Perhaps the pastor’s greatest role in regards to sermons is not preparing and delivering them, but rather facilitating them in the context of a balanced liturgy. That might mean finding many others in the congregation who can offer a sermon or thoughts. It might mean gathering a group of ten or twelve people who pursue spiritual formation together with the pastor and from that activity, study, craft and deliver sermons as a team. It might mean finding others who can facilitate discussion around the texts and the sermon. It might mean finding others who can provide an artistic expression for the texts and sermons. (I like the examples from the Church in Bethesda, which blend Scripture, music and video.) It might mean reorganizing the role of the musical worship from being a 20- or 30-minute indulgence of personal intimacy and expression into a corporate response to the Scriptures and sermons. It might mean rethinking and reimagining communion as a corporate experience of God’s New Creation.
Whatever practices a local church embraces, it will require relinquishing the sacred notions that 1) the pastor is God’s primary spokesperson, 2) the sermon is the centerpiece of weekly worship and spiritual formation, and 3) the sermon must entertain in order to hold the congregation’s attention.