Today is the eighth and final post in the series I’ve been writing on sermons. (You can find the series here)
For the past 1700 years or so (since Constantine), the church has operated under what is commonly called Christendom. Some characteristics of this period are:
- the church became an institution and frequently sought position and power (and as you may remember, that generally never ended well).
- the church became hierarchical, and separation between clergy and laity occurred and grew.
- church became something you attended and where certain important aspects of your life (birth, marriage, death) were handled. This, in many ways, led to the dichotomy many live with today where they have their “spiritual life” and their “real life”, and they tend not to impact each other.
An essential truth the church lost under Christendom was something the bible refers to as the priesthood of all believers. Under Christendom, only certain professionals could read, interpret, and inform the masses what the bible said or meant. For many Jesus followers, these remnants still impact how we think about church today.
If you are wondering, I am not going from there to saying that training, study, scholarship, etc., are irrelevant. They are crucial.
There are groups of Christians that think we can just “read the bible and do what it says”. However, they ignore the implications of interpretation and the fact that the bible was written in “not-English” within cultures and worldviews vastly different from our own. Ignoring this produces an unhelpful and unhealthy model.
At the same time, there is the romantic image of the “man of God” going up the mountain…or wherever….hearing from God and then bringing the message back to the people. That is not healthy either.
Here are some of my thoughts (and keep in mind I am speaking to the part of the larger church that I am part of).
- While a church leader should study and be competent at wrestling with, understanding and communicating scripture, they should not create dependency. Should they work to keep people coming back Sunday after Sunday, or should they work at helping those they lead to be able to likewise wrestle with, understand and communicate scripture? (Clearly there are many reasons the church has to gather, my concern is when the gatheing is pastor/sermon-centric).
- There are several reasons this happens:
- It is what we know, and change is hard.
- This is the model for not all but many churches. We need more people to come on Sundays, so we need to give a quality presentation that keeps them coming back and bringing their friends.
- But I believe one of the most significant issues at this point is the celebrity culture within the evangelical church. And there is a lot of incentive and encouragement for pastors to build their platform, write books and get on the speaking circuit. (If you have an opportunity, you should listen to the excellent podcast series, “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.” It gets at a lot of this in an incredibly compelling way.)
If the church was simply about intellectual learning, the pastor/teacher should be the most educated person who is also the best at communicating truth.
But, Ephesians 4 tells us the role of church leadership is to help the whole church come to maturity. Learning is part of that, but so is character formation. So is learning to live as part of a community where we serve one another and lay down our rights/lives for each other.
Again, I love good teaching and listen to theology podcasts and sermons a lot. Yet, I can’t keep track of the times I have been in a conversation, and one person shared something God had been showing them… and I had a “whoa” moment. Their insight helped me see things in a light that I would not have been able to due to my own blinders and issues.
This series has not been an encouragement to abolish the sermon. But it has been an argument for why it must be changed. The sermon can be one of the most impactful resources the church has. But if the sermon remains largely a performance by one person, where a group of individuals sit passively and watch, because that is what it means to be the church, we will not see transformation in our people or our communities that we desire.