The Cynic: Why Do We Preach the Way We Preach?

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I believe in the sermon. I really do. But…

Sometimes sermons fall dead in the pews.  This is not me saying “WE NEED TO LISTEN TO SERMONS BETTER.”  I am wondering, why do we preach the way we preach? 

I am a veteran of sermon listening.  I’ve been going to church for the majority of my life and have been exposed to a TON of sermons.  During those sermons I have fallen asleep, I have experienced a boredom that is physically painful, I have felt an awkward pity for many preachers and have, from time to time, been fully and completely enthralled. 

Sermon’s are just something we do in churches.  We gather.  We sit.  We sing.  We pray.  We listen to someone talk for 20 – 40 minutes.  We go home.  Maybe we talk about the content of the sermon on the way home, or at the restaurant, or maybe even in care group.  But that’s it. 

I must confess.  As a veteran sermon listener and now, pastor, I spend anywhere from 10-25 hours prepping a sermon. Sometimes I come off the stage after preaching asking ‘why?’  Then the questions start piling up…

Was all the prep time worth it?  Are people really being transformed?  Did I do a good enough job?  Do people actually listen or is this a habitual ‘going through the motions’ thing? 

Sermon’s need engagement to come alive.  They need engagement by the individual, and engagement by the larger church community.  This is particularly foundational for Anabaptists.  I wonder if the way we preach facilitates a long, brutal death within the pews.

How can we engage sermons in a larger community?  How can a sermon transformative?

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24 comments

  1. Robert Martin · January 22, 2013

    Hey, Chris….couple of thoughts…

    Could part of the problem be the content of the sermons? If they are just reinforcing what we already know, if they don’t challenge us to rethink the way we look at things, why engage? Check out David Fitch’s article on his blog http://www.reclaimingthemission.com/ about destroying worlds…

    Another part….sage on the stage with one person talking and the rest listening….very passive participation by the congregation…What if the sermon was interactive? What if instead of the pastor quoting scripture, he/she had the congregants stand and read at various points? What if instead of just “preaching”, the speaker asks questions and actually waits for response? You can also check out Chris Nickel’ blog where he describes their “table” church stuff where they interact as groups around the topic of the morning…

    Just some thoughts from another veteran sermonizer/sermon listener

    • Chris Lenshyn · January 22, 2013

      Hey bro.

      Yes! A good post from Fitch. I like where he is venturing on this. The prophetic/pastoral dynamic is a fine line to navigate! Seems his answer is bi-vocationalism. I am hoping to engage this at some point as I yak about preaching on the blog.

      Cool. I didn’t know that “the Nick” was doing that kind of stuff out in PA. I love thinking about ways to be interactive in a sermon time. Can be anything from discussion groups after, to the things Ryan shared above.

      Thanks for sharing!

  2. Jordan · January 22, 2013

    I wrote a long post on this last year, I think it ties into the discussion… http://faithandfrustration.wordpress.com/2012/10/24/apple-evangelism-and-why-i-wouldnt-make-a-good-pastor

    • Chris Lenshyn · January 22, 2013

      Dude, I totally remember reading this. Good stuff. It is true, we see sermons evangelizing products in ways that churches have been preaching and teaching Jesus…

      Still dreaming of that bacon! 😉

  3. Ryan Robinson · January 22, 2013

    A church I went to in Kingston occasionally was really good at engaging the congregation even though the preachers themselves were average in their speaking skills. The congregation was probably about 50 people after the kids went off to Sunday School so maybe it wouldn’t work well much bigger. The preacher changed regularly with the main pastor only preaching about a third of the time and a lot of the others being laypeople. The preacher almost always stood in the middle of the congregation instead of at the front. He or she asked questions and expected responses. In at least one case it was pretty much a large inductive Bible study where we were invited to imagine ourselves in the situation, calling out what we were experiencing (sounds, smells, etc., not just feelings).

    • Chris Lenshyn · January 22, 2013

      That is pretty cool Ryan. I’ve often wondered about ways in which to engage congregations like this. Most stories I hear of engagement like you shared above are with congregations that are small’ish.’ I would like to try it with my church of approx 220-250/Sunday.

      I like the idea of being in a different position in the room. (i.e., standing in the centre). I’ve heard of a church that has the pastor/speaker share from outside the circle.

      Thanks Ryan!

      • Robert Martin · January 22, 2013

        Sermon in the Round is fun.

        Another suggestion: What if the pastor/teacher simply presents the topic, allows the congregants to engage in smaller table discussions, and then report back discussions with the teacher summing up. That might work better with bigger congregations.

        One has to wonder, though… you’re talking about preaching as discipleship training… That’s hard to do even in a group of 50. Perhaps preaching is the general teaching for all but then the discipleship based upon that teaching needs to happen in smaller venues.

      • Chris Lenshyn · January 22, 2013

        I fully understand the dynamics you are wondering about, particularly with group size. But, for the cynic in me, something about general sermons/teachings doesn’t sit right. I am wanting more from sermons. Maybe I am wanting too much from the act itself, or just simply discontent with sermons.

  4. Jamie Arpin-Ricci · January 22, 2013

    Chris, as you know, our community does sermon in the round. With 25-40 people, as pastor I facilitate a conversation of mutual learning. I still teach/preach, presenting content, but do so in a way that is premised on the idea that the primary place to discern God’s meaning in Scripture is the context of community. Yes, this necessitates a smaller group than some churches, but perhaps that is a telling limitation.

    Interestingly, this dynamic is one of the main reasons I was drawn to Anabaptism, but only later discovered that not many Anabaptist churches practice it.

    • Robert Martin · January 22, 2013

      I agree, Jamie. This is something that I, too, see as a necessary part of learning. In our culture, sermon still seems to be the primary teaching tool but, perhaps, our churches need to make opportunities and express the need for the exploration in smaller settings.

    • Chris Lenshyn · January 22, 2013

      Yes, for a faith tradition grounded in community, the idea of a preacher (superstar or otherwise) offering words and leaving it at that is a real tension I face.

      Perhaps our churches are too big? Or can we move to a general (which is maybe where we are at now) sermon with specifics worked through in other settings.

      One thing I do know is that theatre seating does not facilitate a collaborative learning/transformation.

      • Robert Martin · January 22, 2013

        Consider this… sermons/homilies started back in the Reformation (and earlier) when literacy levels were low and there was a need for a schooled person who could read to explain the texts to the unschooled/illiterate congregation. In this day and age, that may not be valid any longer and we should shift the focus of the Sunday morning to primarily worship and the other parts of the gathering (intercessory prayer, teaching, discipleship, etc) should be moved to other venues.

  5. Arthur Sido · January 22, 2013

    I think the question to be asked is not “are we doing sermons the right way” but should we just toss them entirely? Across the religious spectrum that passes for “the church” we see the centrality of the monologue by the religious professional which is odd since it is absent from Scripture. The church gathering to break bread together and mutually edify and encourage one another is largely dead, replaced by a religious gathering where the majority passively observe a carefully staged performance. All the while we bemoan that Christians are theologically illiterate and utterly unprepared (and unmotivated) to evangelize.

    What is the definition of insanity again?

    • Chris Lenshyn · January 23, 2013

      What up, Arthur!

      Has the feel of trying to fit a square peg into a circle. Though, I am not sure I want to toss them out entirely. But I understand your frustration with the monologue, and it’s seeming inability to be more than a stage event similar to going to a movie theatre.

      I want the sermon to be awesome. Instinctively, a more collaborative approach is very appealing as it hits on some Anabaptist roots.

  6. Pat · January 22, 2013

    A church I used to attend had a Sunday school class specifically for discussing the sermon and I think that helps people to listen better. The pastor also talked over his upcoming topic at a men’s class and so he went into it with others’ thoughts and the sermon ended with some of us discussing and reflecting on the content.

    This same pastor would occasionally ask a question of the congregation and lest anyone think they can’t do it because their church is too big, this was a church that averaged about 300 people per service. It also broke up the routine and you could see people getting engaged.

    • Chris Lenshyn · January 23, 2013

      Hey Pat.

      I appreciate your sharing. It reminds me that a sermon is to be embodied and not merely presented on a Sunday morning. I try to converse with people about what I will be preaching on months in advance as to get a more collaborative dynamic in my preparation. I feel a need to engage stuff more, a Sunday school class is one practical way to do that. Can’t help but wonder if we can push it a bit more into the dynamics of the sermon itself though.

      Thanks,

      • Robert Martin · January 23, 2013

        I agree. Make the sermon more dynamic and you have a better sense of continued application after the fact. As a trained educator, if your purpose of the sermon is to teach something for both retention and application, you need more modalities addressed than just aural. Verbal, tactile, visual…the more modalities you engage, the better the retention. In a “sage on the stage” paradigm, you’re only engaging aural. If you mix in questions with responses, you’ve now added verbal. Add in pictures/videos/PowerPoint outlines, and now you’ve added visual. Include in your bulletin “Note” sheets for folks to jot stuff down, now you have tactile.

        Now, as to push it further, you can then engage further discussion later. My inlaws’ church produces discussion materials for every sermon that are distributed to the “community groups” that meet during the week for additional discussions/applications. My old church we had a Sunday school class that was simply a discussion time with the speaker to engage the speaker in further conversation on the topic.

        Last summer, our old church did something more. The Sunday School class after the fact was then multi-generational (ages 1st grade through 90+) where the topic from the sermon was then applied to the Sunday school class with various activies, expressions, etc., to reinforce the message/lesson across the board.

        There are all sorts of ways to do this… it means, many times, upsetting the apple cart of “the way we do things” and inviting creativity.

      • Chris Lenshyn · January 23, 2013

        Lol! Love the “Saga on the stage line.”

        Those are great examples. Greg Boyd did a Q & A at the end of a few of his sermons in the summer. I don’t know if he still does. But it is another example.

        Feeling the need to get uber collaborative with our learning, disciple-making etc…

        The Saga on the STage is often seen as the primary method. Like a friend on the facebook thread said, “When people ask how was church? The answer usually centers on the sermon.”

  7. Jay · January 22, 2013

    Excellent post. Part of the reason I did not particularly enjoy university was sitting and being talked at, and that can often happen in a church service. I like to be engaged, and I want to be able to relate to things.

    At my last church there were 3 (and later 2) pastors that split up the preaching duties. One of them was very scripture-focused, almost leading a Bible Study during his sermon. The “second” one spent a good chunk of time relating Biblical teachings with current events. The “third” spent his time in the middle of the other two, so to speak.

    I by far enjoyed the current events approach the best because it was easier for me to relate to and I felt more connected to the sermon. But regardless, there was something for everyone with the three pastor approach (and this wasn’t a big Church, congregation was probably 60-80ish on a regular Sunday).

    I always like to look at how technology can be integrated into things. Like how an LCD projector has replaced (not in every case of course) the hymn book, verses can be projected up for those who do not have a Bible with them, etc.

    Why not take it further? I’m no pastor, but in my job I have to give presentations; so far the largest has been about 125-150 people. I say right up front that it would probably be boring to just listen to me talk, so I open with a quick ice breaker, and use video clips throughout the presentation to break things up.

    If letting people answer questions during a sermon is difficult in a larger congregation, why not make use of Twitter? Put it up on the wall and let people Tweet their answers and suggestions? Sure there is a danger of people just staring at their phones, and there are some people without a phone, but at least we’re trying something new. Don’t leave the Twitter feed up the entire time, just during specific periods.

    Just some thoughts!

    • Chris Lenshyn · January 23, 2013

      Engaging speakers and content is extremely important for sermons, no matter how they are presented. Video clips etc… can be functional to the teaching/engagement process. I wonder about learning collaboratively however. Engaging presentations are great, but if people leave merely entertained the sermon falls dead in the pew. If people have opportunity to engage it further, the sermon continues, and the truth – hopefully communicated by the speaker 😉 – remains alive.

      Your comment on technology and twitter is fascinating. It could serve as a place of further contact and collaboration, but the down side is people are looking at phones, ipad’s etc… which often disconnect us from our specific time and place. It would be interesting to see if people use twitter that way, and what the impact has been.

      • Jay · January 23, 2013

        Utilizing Twitter to engage the audience is gaining traction with public speakers and presenters. Part of not losing your audience to the phone is only displaying the Twitter feed when it is specifically needed, if you display it the entire time then people will become distracted.

        Not saying it’s a perfect example, but you need to speak the same language as those you are speaking to and that includes utilizing technology and trends. For example, I used to avoid texting (“I have e-mail for that!”) but when I finally decided to do it, was it ever waaay easier to keep in touch with the teenage athletes I was coaching.

      • Chris Lenshyn · January 23, 2013

        Social media is a strong tool. The language element that you identify is one I have come across too as a youth pastor. Facebook is def. the place where I communicate info beyond our regular events. If I was still relying on bulletin announcements etc… I would be dead in the water.

        Technology is def something that we can utilize. However in a multi generational church, it is a bit tougher to work exclusively in that direction. I think the say those born after 1973 are native technology users who can adapt way easier than those born before.

        Looove the idea of collaboration.

      • Robert Martin · January 23, 2013

        Harry Jarret, at our Pittsburg convention, did a workshop specifically on the use of social media. During that workshop, has folks throwing up questions, responses, etc, during a real “sermon”. Afterwards, he polled the group and found that the interaction had immense meaning in this fashion. Introverts who aren’t comfortable with “out loud” responses felt empowered. Extroverts felt empowered to interact with the responses as they were projected on the screen. It was a full on collaborative process.

  8. len hjalmarson · January 25, 2013

    One of the more useful articles on preaching in 2011 — http://www.christianitytoday.com/le/2011/spring/preachingperformance.html

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