by Rick Edwards
Is it possible to be preached out of church? According to social science research, it is. Sociologists Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope in their book, Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are DONE with church but not their faith, interviewed people who are leaving the church after years of involvement and service. One of the gripes these dechurched people had is that they are fed up with lecture-style preaching that simply downloads doctrine or moralisms.
This echoes the observation that Rick Chromey made in his book, Sermons Reimagined: Preaching in a Fluid Culture: “In a Google world, answers are everywhere, so there’s no need to go to a church building to listen to one [person’s] solutions” (p.91). Chromey and a host of others are calling for a new paradigm for the time-honored (time-worn?) sermon.
This “new” nature of the sermon means that it becomes re-purposed from a lecture that downloads doctrine or self-help tips to an invitation that raises meaningful questions for the congregation to engage. What would it look like if preachers would facilitate interaction during and after the sermon rather than serve as the single source of indoctrination? Are there ways your church can use new channels of input and feedback that look more like a dialogue than a monologue?
I suspect that some parts of the preacher’s task would still be needed. Although the model of authoritarian truth dispenser needs to go away, we can’t simply ask each other, “What does this Scripture mean to you?” This pooling of our ignorance will not suffice to wet our ankles, much less immerse us in God’s truth. Somewhere in between single source indoctrination and pooling of ignorance lies a middle way of seeking truth together. Pastors can offer their expertise in biblical interpretation and theology to guide and inform our dialog, while leaving open space for ideas and insights to flow from other conversation partners.
What if sermons included fewer propositional statements and more inspirational pointers to God? As Bishop Kallistos Ware states, “It is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progressively aware of a mystery. God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder.”
I don’t doubt that creative church leaders can come up with many more ideas for fostering interactive sermons that engage both preacher and congregation. But I also don’t doubt that we can learn some “new” ways of preaching from other Christian traditions that have been around a while.
For example, have you ever participated in the worship service at a historically black church? The call-and-response pattern of the sermon creates a dynamic partnership between preacher and congregation that inspires, motivates, and engages. Sermons like that embody the meaning of the word liturgy, which literally means “work of the people.”
The Pentecostal/Charismatic worship model places the sermon in the context of lots of music, personal testimonies, and extended prayers. When combined properly and in proportions suitable for your congregation, these elements can infuse a service with unfettered joy and praise that invites full participation.
Even the ancient “high church” traditions can be tapped for increasing a congregation’s engagement in worship. What if you tried some of the liturgical practices that utilize sight, sound, touch, smell, and scripted responses? They can beautifully satisfy the post-modern penchant for participatory experiences. (This is the experience traced by Rachel Held Evans in her top-selling book, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church.)
Rather than devoting close to 50 percent of the worship time to a sermon that teaches and informs, as many Protestant churches do, the ancient traditions use sermons more as brief commentaries or guides for reflecting on Scripture, prayer, praise, and communion. These ancient patterns have a way of soaking into your bones. The prayers and songs stay with you throughout the week in a way no sermon can.
The key to making preaching attractive rather than repellent lies in church leaders who aren’t afraid to change their understanding and practice of preaching. How ready do you think your church is for this challenge?