>Perils and Problems with Preaching

Posted: 02/01/2010 in iconoclasms

>There comes a time in every Christian’s life when they get bored with listening to sermons on Sundays. Can we all admit it? Preaching is the central focus of a Sunday service in just about every evangelical church, but inevitably many of the attendants are going to get bored.

Many churches come up with new ways to circumvent this problem. They might update with some nice power point. They could even euphemize “sermon” with “conversation.” Maybe the preacher needs to dress down a bit and put more clever stories in his sermons –err conversations. We can even remove pulpits. We can shorten their length. There are so many things we can do –even sermon notes!- in order to keep the congregation engaged in what the Holy Spirit has to say to them.

But what if none these are really solutions? What if the problem is not with the manner of preaching, but the fact that preaching is central to the sunday worship to begin with? What if the expectation that you go to church, sing songs, and then “tune in” to “the man of God who gives you the word of God” is the problem? None of these the adjustments above would seem to offer a solution.

I realize that many people reading this can’t imagine going to “church” and not expecting the pastor’s sermon to take up most of their time. Sitting reverently during a “conversation” is part of Sunday worship. To do otherwise might seem to fail to make God’s Word important.

It is for all those out there that I write this blog. Please bear with me a bit. Sure, what I’m writing is not going to be popular, but I think if you read it you’ll see that I am not completely mad.

Making preaching the center of the service can create problems. Not all the problems I list are inevitable, but I believe that they pop-up more often than is easily seen. With an iconoclast’s hammer in hand, here I go:

Making preaching central can reduce the communication of God’s truth to verbal mediums only. Of all the reasons I could list, this is probably the most abstract so let’s get it out of the way. Not all communication is verbal. Not all communication uses words. Preaching reduces our worship and learning to what we do with our ears and one person’s voice. The other senses of touch, sight, and smell are ignored.

In older high church traditions, the senses of hearing, sight, smell, and touch are used in concert with each other. In a Missouri Synod Lutheran Church I attended the central visual focus of the church was stained glass image of Christ the King. The pastor stood off to the side when he preached a short homily, not a grandiose sermon. The senses of touch took place through the partaking of the Eucharist, which was preceded by prayer and singing, not an explanatory sermon.

Thus the worship and learning was not through words alone, but through other senses and experiences.

Making preaching central can give an inordinate amount of authority to the pastor. Ignoring other mediums of communication doesn’t mean that something is not communicated through them. Consider what is visually center. Often the pastor stands on an elevated platform above a crowd that is sitting. All eyes are on him. He might have a pulpit or not, but that makes no difference –especially when the pulpit is replaced with a spotlight. The most reverent Christians are the ones passionately taking notes. This lasts, in many cases, for the majority of the Sunday service. It goes on week after week, year after year.

All this communicates that this man talking, is not only a special, specific, role, but that he is to be followed and to be obeyed. This is a bit autocratic, no matter how benign the leader maybe. It is also incredibly ironic that a single person becomes the center of attention for the greater glory of God. Are we not able to look to God directly? Do we follow Apollos?

There is also a problem with a commitment to have the Bible as the authority. Most people in the pews do not have the time, the resources, or sometimes even the will to learn how to study scripture (and I can add that neither do many ministers!), thus the job of interpretation falls to one person. Eventually, what the pastor says gets conflated with what the Bible says. (Admittedly, there is always an interpretation of some kind going on when we read the Bible.) Still, when the pastor’s sermon and the Bible get conflated, it produces a kind of dogmatism. Questioning the pastor becomes the equivalent of questioning the Bible. This is too much influence in one guys hands.

Making preaching central can create a “cult-of-personality” or outright sacredotalism. It should go without saying that there is a problem when a well-known minister receives celebrity treatment when he walks into a room or attends a conference. Again, this pastor becomes the center of attention for the Glory of God. What is even worse is when it turns into sacredotalism.

Sacradotalism is a ten dollar word that is lost in evangelical vocabulary, but it is alive and well in practice. It means that there are two types of Christians; the lay Christians and the really spiritual ones. Sacradotalism means that there is a “man of God who delivers the Word of God” to the lay people. That one person has the role of being extra holy and has an almost exclusive access to the Holy Spirit. He delivers it to the congregation through his presence and speaking –with the appropriate humility of course. In some circles, the pastor may even declare himself the anointed man of God who is accountable only to God. (I recommend running from such people.)

People sometimes shrug and ask what the problem is. There are two. First, this creates problem with the congregation. Now, not only is authority of the pastor conflated with scripture, but pastor can become proverbial prophets who can be no more questioned than the Apostles. As bad as this is, it is only a small problem compared to what it can do to a pastor.

Exactly how holy is holy enough for the “man of God who delivers the word of God”? I think very few people can appreciate the kind of pressure it takes to be “extra holy.” Pastors often talk about how they need to watch their own moral and spiritual lives for sake of their congregation. The problem is you can never be holy enough. The external pressure of a spiritual perfectionism can be crushing. A pastor cannot pray enough, fast enough, avoid sin enough and such if his condition so dramatically determines how much of the Holy Spirit gets to his flock. One has to wonder if pressure like this paves the way for downfall through hidden escapisms. Ted Haggard anyone?

It is not that I don’t like a good message and a good sermon, and I don’t think they should be abolished. In fact, my wonderful iPod has kept me busy as I have downloaded various messages from ministers all over the country. Neither am I saying that I think that all these problems will happen every time, in every church, on every Sunday. I am saying that the problems are there, and I think for the most part unadressed because they are unknown. As long as preaching central to sunday worship, problems like these will eventually come up somehow.

And I can never get over the subtle irony that worshiping god Sundays means (in part) sitting down, passively, while focusing on someone other than God for forty-five minutes.

  1. Dan says:

    >You only sit in church for 45 minutes!?!? LOL! Just kidding. Anyway, I agree with you that we've skewed preaching. I get pretty sick of the celebrity status we believers give to other preachers. That being said, as far as I understand, the New Testament seems to put a great deal of authority in the lectures/sermons (other senses, with exception of taste maybe, are not as used). If you could, would you write another post about your idea of a good worship service? I'm not saying you're wrong, but I do see some parts of your argument that need to be addressed.

  2. Dbrad says:

    >As per our many previous conversations, I once asked the same question of, "is the focus of the services supposed to be what it is?" I found the divine liturgy to be the answer, which eventually let me to Orthodoxy. Early on in my "de-conversion" (as I call it) process, I came across the first apology of St. Justin the Martyr written in the second century. In it, he gives the earliest known description of the liturgy. Needless to say, his description of the worship of the early persecuted church bears little resemblence to the worship of the modern evangelical tradition that I had been raised in.What I found even more shocking was what I experienced on the sunday immediately following my discovery of his work. I walked into an Antiochian Orthodox parish, and I saw the very service that he described nearly 2 millenia ago.Now, weather or not we should worship as the early Christians did is a different discussion, but I think that focus of their services is relevant to your subject. The focus of the service wasn't on the knowledge of God, or more often as we see today, Christian self-help philosophy, but on the experience of God through corporate worship and the taking of the Eucharist. Perhaps our emphasis on eloquent speaking and scholasticism are a relatively more modern invention stemming from the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. The rock show and the video or powerpoint presentations are more recent modifications. All in all, they, in my opinion, reduce the congregation to passive participants, to no more than an audience. I could continue, but perhaps this is a good stopping point. I know, per your statement to me, that I am not the intended audience, but I appreciate your thoughts in any case. Good stuff. I hope that you keep it coming.

  3. Q says:

    >Yeah, 45 minutes is a little short for a church service. 😉 The services I go to are at least an hour, closer to 75 minutes, and Eastern Orthodox and African American congregations finish their introductions after 45 minutes. Just saying.I think you've been pretty influenced by Mosaic or the emergent church in general, because a lot of the criticisms against preaching are more of a sign of bad theology of homiletics rather than something that plagues all preaching.The first thing is this: the quality of the person preaching is irrelevant. Augustine, right? If the quality of the person presiding over the Sacraments is essential, then every sacrament is invalid because, as you said, no one is holy enough. That was the Donatist argument. So whoever is delivering the sacraments or, in this case the sermon, does not matter.Also, in the Presbyterian church anyway, the sermon is usually no longer than 15-20 minutes. In a 75 minute service, that's barely 20% of the service, meaning most of the service is focused on alternative forms of worship (i.e. singing, praying, unison reading, fellowship etc). And consider that in some liturgical traditions, sometimes there is no homily. So I wouldn't say that it is the norm for the sermon to be the central part of the sermon.But the biggest point is WHY the sermon elevated in importance. The answer: the Reformation. Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, etc all thought that one of the main problems with the R.C. C. was a de-emphasis on the preaching on scripture. Thus, the sermon was given a bigger piece of services so that scripture could be taught. The sermon is not supposed to be a platform for the preacher to say whatever he or she wants. It's a place where the Gospel is supposed to be proclaimed to the congregation and, through extension, to the world. This is why you'll rarely hear the Reformers talk about "sermons" or "homilies." They'll always call it the Proclamation of the Word.Now, that doesn't change the fact that some churches have butchered that principle (e.g. some emergent churches, a lot of non-denoms). But there are some denominations (P.C.U.S.A. for one) that still emphasizes that sermons are supposed to be proclamation of the Word. And I think you would agree that that should be essential to worship services, since that is the central command of Scripture: proclamation of the Word.I think you do have valid points. I think one of the important things seminary has taught me is what a sermon is supposed to be. A lot of people (and I think your blog's argument illustrates this positively) think sermons are supposed to be soapbox orations where someone gets up and says whatever they want, which in some way is supposed to be theological. That's not what a sermon is, and a worship service isn't really the platform for that to happen (in most situations, not always). But, again, I think your critique is against a smaller sampling of churches (non-denom and emergent evangelical churches).

  4. Jin-roh says:

    >Thank you friends for weighing in.Q, you're right. I am mostly concerned about "touchy-feely West Coast Evangelicalism."Dbrad, I am SHOCKED you didn't make any comments about the real presence in the host.Dan, your question is valid. It does demand another blog. Basically, I feel an apprioiate worship service is one in which the congregation is more actively involved and the leaders (both preachers and musicians) lead from the sidelines, rather than a front and center "look at me, I'm spotlight right" approach. Such a scenario can make most church services barely distinguishable from rock concerts and businesses summits if you walked in not knowing English.

  5. Dbrad says:

    >Well, I did think about the 'real presence', but you already know my theology, and for the sake of (relative) brevity, I thought that was better reserved for a different post.

  6. Anonymous says:

    >Thus why the "catholic" traditions stress the Eucharist/Holy Communion as the central ministry of God to His people during the sabbath.This is much more important than a homily or sermon (in fact, those who expect to be "taught" in the traditional sense for 25-60 minutes on a Sunday morning while being distracted with singing, incense, mood lighting, and a myriad of other attention-grabbers might want to have his head examined).

  7. Dan says:

    >I disagree with anonymous. Look at the New Testament teaching and let me know if you see any liturgy, any evidence of Eucharist being the central point of any service. What did Peter do when he taught in the Synagogue (or anywhere else for that matter)…he spoke/lectured/reasoned/taught. Guys, the sermon is the primary method.

  8. Q says:

    >I have to disagree with anon as well. The central ministry of God to his people is Reconciliation through the cross, and the central ministry of the Church is being a witness to that reconciliation. That can happen through Eucharist or sermons, but the proclamation of the word is key to all of it. It should govern everything the Church does. That, at least, is the overwhelming theme throughout all of Scripture.

  9. Jin-roh says:

    >I think the situation is different for anyone who believes in the real presence though. If Christ is literally, tangibly, present in the Eucharist, than it is almost inconceivable that anything but Christ's literal, tangible, presence would be the center of worship.That said, I know that at least LCMS does "Liturgy of the Word" and "Liturgy of Sacrament" on alternating Sundays, but even on the "Liturgy of the Word" days the Sermon was still shorter than average and the overall emphasis seemed focused on prayer.

  10. Stephanie says:

    >I feel like what is being preached is relevant. You mentioned that many churches do things to make the sermon "not boring." However, if you focus on the scriptures themselves, I think the Bible is pretty exciting. It's very refreshing when you find a preacher who gets out the way, so to speak, and offers up the pure and beautiful word of God. A true preacher doesn't see himself as answerable only to God, but as a servant, offering up the beauty and riches of God to the people. Also, it is a lot less boring if you are actively going after the things of the Lord, reading your own Bible, worshiping the Lord all during the week, not just on Sundays. I think people put great expectation on the Sunday "worship experience", when really it's just another time to gather with other believers and hear the word in a different way.

  11. Q says:

    >This is going to sound weird, but I think 'real presence' is completely irrelevant. Christ is present at worship services, and whether it's spiritual or physical is a moot point. To say one is more important than the other is falling into a dualist trap. Even so, the point of worship and the point of the Christian life whether on Sunday or any other day is to be a witness, to point to that presence. Which, again, can happen through either a sermon or Eucharist or both. One doesn't (or shouldn't) take precedence over the other because both are acts of witness. Keep in mind why Paul says we celebrate Eucharist in I Corinthians: "For as long as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes." (NRSV). Again, the focus is not on the nourishing that comes from the meal (though that's important) but the act of witness in celebrating Eucharist, which is why celebrating it in an unholy manner is such a detriment to the Christian community.

  12. James says:

    >You know, It seems that some commenting on this post prefer a focus on liturgy. I wonder if the issue isn't more with the fact that a sermon generally is done by a single person. I currently attend a small church (read "less than 50 people) and the pastor tag teams a lot. Meaning he will speak for half the sermon and someone else will speak for the other half. Sometimes this will be the assistant pastor, other times this may be a member of the congregation. Sometimes, a congregation member or guest will be asked to speak for the whole sermon. Other times, the sermon will be shortened significantly so that lecto divina may take place. Sermons also tend to have an air of audience participation about them. Last sunday, several congregation members shared thoughts pertaining to the sermon by simply piping up during the sermon. During this, our pastor made the observation that many pastors get very angry when they are interrupted, while he welcomes it. He seemed to think that it was arrogant to think that you are the only one through whom God has something to say. I tend to agree. I think the idea of a "conversation" is a good one. But for a conversation to occur, there has to be more than one person speaking. There needs to be give and take. I think more than anything, we simply need more diversity with the services as a whole. Why do we have to do the same thing every week? Why does it have to be so completely structured? I don't think that God always speaks best through structure like this and is sometimes confined by it.

  13. Jin-roh says:

    >I'd like to give a big, heartfelt, "Thank you" to everyone who has shared their thoughts and comments in this thread. This is the most response I have ever received and it means a lot to me.

  14. Dbrad says:

    >Dan, I respectfully disagree. As a former Protestant, I used to think as you do, which I think is a function of the roots of protestantism as reactionary against Catholicism, as well as western "rational" thought.In this context, it's understandible that you say that "the sermon is the primary method."However, the model for the liturgical service is in the scripture. We find the Greek leitourgia, or its variants, in both the old and new testaments. Western translations have rendered the word as 'ministerd', as is the case in Ephesians (they ministered unto the lord and fasted), but it is there in any case. See http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09306a.htm for more specific examples of the liturgy in the first few centuries of the church.Keep in mind that the new testament was written to a church that was already a practicing entity. Would they be addressing the nuts and bolts of the workings of the church, or would they be addressing issues in the church and the subject of how to live a christlike life? Perhaps a bit of both?Would it also be possible that, because the western bible was translated and printed in the vernacular post-reformation, our translations of the bible are heavily influenced by reformation theology?See the last supper for an example of a focus on the eucharist.See also St. Justin Martyr (I Apology 65-67). And what of Paul's statement in 2 Th. 2:15? "So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter (NIV)." What are those word of mouth teachings?I know it's a bit of a ramble, but their just some things to think on.

  15. Jin-roh says:

    >To be clear (Dan, and Dane) I will be posting a thread on a more positive case of what I think is central to a closed-door, sunday worship type service.But that will have to wait.Next Blog will be on a book review.

  16. Dan says:

    >It would be a mistake for me to respond to this any further. Just know that I disagree. I look forward to future posts on the matter.

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