The audacity of contemporary Evangelical preaching
I grew up the “son of a preacher man” and I have heard and preached more than enough sermons to do me multiple life times. I find that I agree with some preachers and former pastors who say they cannot listen to sermons as they once did and for a variety of reasons. We live in a era, where the relic of contemporary preaching either needs to go away by the way of the Dodo bird, or it has to be revampt and changed and transformed in order to be a meaningful and purposeful part of the church that gathers together to celebrate life in Christ.
One of the reasons I believe the “sermon” is out of step with our contemporary society, is that it is truly a relic of the Englightenment where reason and a fine articulation of argumentation were the normative in our culture and society, and it was not uncommon for people to speak well over an hour, be that in a church gathering, or some kind of stump speech by a politician, or a lecture being given by a professor or noted celebrity. It seems as a whole, “wordiness” has substituted “substance”, as well as “longevity” has overtaken “brevity and quality.” There seems to be the perception that a 35 minute sermon makes for a good “teaching” or “exhortation” and anything less than this amount of time is somehow thought to be of poor quality and shoddy preparation on the part of the speaker.
The evolution of sermonizing has led to our current situation
When you consider the influence of scholasticism, philosophy, higher education, logic and reason, the Middle Ages, the rise of the printing press, and the influence of the Renaissance on the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, you see why “preaching” has become the dominant feature of the “church service” within Protestantism, and especially so within the Evangelical stream of the Protestant Church. The Reformation replaced the divine liturgy centred on the Eucharist with a centrality of the Bible and preaching. Instead of all of our senses being utilized in experiencing and celebrating God and His grace and the mysteries of Christ, we have largely become a “people of the book and a swelled head.” It seems head knowledge through hearing “expository preaching” has surplanted the Spirit connection and encounter we had known through the Eucharist and Divine Liturgy.
Combining this with the rise of Post-Modernism, and the evolution of information techology and the Internet, as well and the lightning fast speed of daily life, work and leisure and recreation in our day, and the ever expanding influence of social media, and computerized gadgets from mobile tablets to smart phones, where we are always connected to 24/7 information and news and distractions, it is of little wonder that our attention spans have been greatly reduced, adn that so many suffer from ADHD, among many social ills affecting our society. It no less affects the Christian Church, when people come through its doors, they approach it much the same way they approach any endeavour they engage with.
Challenges affecting engagement with contemporary society
Sermons, the main staple of information delivery, and teaching within the mainstream church system (and it is a “system”) reveals the need for a “Sermon Upgrade” to borrow from the information technology sector. As I said 40 minute sermons won’t cut it for very long before people tune out around the 20 minute mark. So what is a church to do, in order to reach contemporary culture?
- Create a more engaging church gathering participatory celebration. The standard operating procedure in an Evangelical service is so predictable you can do it in your sleep. People within Evangelicalism pride themselves in not having liturgy, when in fact every church gathering, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Evangelical, Charismatic, or Independent, and even house churches, these all follow either a spoken out and understood liturgy, or an unspoken one, that is none the less still a very real liturgy and process to how the church gathers, worships and celebrates Christ. My suggestion here is that church gatherings become more engaging, with maximizing more participation by those who gather (other than the standard congregational singing, public reading of Scripture, giving of offerings, and public prayers), and the less dominance of the elite few who lead and actually participate in the events of the gathered celebration. Ther should be options for Q & R (question and response immediately after the sermon or during the sermon). There should be spontaneous singing without the need of the leading of a worship band or choir. There should be spontaneous Bible readings, exhortations, and testimonies and prayers.
- Change up the gathering seating. There is nothing worse than seeing the back of the head of someone in front of you, and sitting there, as if you are are in a movie theatre getting ready for the movie. Change it up. Make it more oval or a U-shaped gathering, where people can see each other face to face. Make the opportunity for more visual and physical contact by this kind of seating arrangement.
- Change the focus from separation to unity, by keeping children in with the adults. The fixation with the “Christian Education” hour is a relic of the the Sunday School Movement which was meant to be an outreach of the church to the child workers who worked in factories in the late 18th century. It was never intended to be a part of the “church system” and “Sunday gathering.” Bring the children in with the adults where all ages can fellowship and worship together. If the children act up, it is up to the parent to discipline them lovingly and gently. They can move to the rear of the room and sit and play with them quietly if need be, and still be in the church gathering. Children of all ages learn by rote and by example, and as they see and engage with adults, they will learn the proper social decorum for a gathering where everyone gets to participate and engage respectfully.
- Have a couple of “roving microphones” that can be circulated around the circle/u-shaped formation. This will enable people to engage, stand up and speak up where everyone can hear them share their Scripture, spontaneous song (if there are acoustic instruments, then those musicians can catch the tune and play along and everyone else join in the singing), spontaneous prayer, and spontaneous words and exhorations and testimonies. To facilitate you can have a facilitator gently coordinate and guide how the gathering flows. Currently church services are run by “command and control” type of coordination, which really disrupts the leading of the Spirit in a gathering.
- If you want a worship band or choir, then move it to the rear of the room. There is a built in “entertainment” mindset when it comes to “worship time.” First, we have reduced the meaning of “worship” to “singing,” when in fact, all we live, do, speak is an “act of worship to God.” Our “worship celebration” is the gathered body of believers that come to “corporately” worship God in a given setting and who gather expressly to celebrate as family, the wonder of God and the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. Our focus should not be on a band or worship leader at the front. Our focus should be internal, and on the living Christ in our hearts, and not on the distraction of gifted musicians and singers up front. Too much of the “band DNA” of the popular culture has infiltrated our churches, with everything from the most up to date sound and light systems, and corporate stage decor and presence. The focus is not the stage up front. It is God within our hearts and lives. You want to change it up, then try to have the worship band at the back, and see how the mindset of focus and worship shifts from singing rad songs with a jacked and edgy band, to actual worship and wonder at being beloved by Almighty God.
- Re-invent the sermon. Deliberately decide to move away from the 30-40 minute dialogue from the front. Yes, there were sermons in the New Testament, and they were never what we have turned them into. They were never meant to be given as “lectures in theology.” They were mean to be exhortations and encouragement and motivators to press into God and experience His life and grace and love to the full. You do not need 30 minutes to do that. I know it takes a lot of work to create a quality message for a Sunday gathering, but believe me “shorter is better.” I just wish some “preachers” would join organizations like Toastmasters and learn what it is to create speeches and make public speeches. The transformation is incredible with those who jump in to learn the fine art of public speaking. You learn how to create speeches of all kinds of length and variety of topics. You learn to unlearn the “nasty habits” that plague good speeches like “um” and “ah” sounds when a person is stuck. You learn to practice your speech so you become comfortable in its delivery and the importance of posture and visual contact, and speaking from the diaphragm. All this helps you become more effective as a communicator. A lot of sermons would get a better hearing, if the speaker actually prepared themselves as much as they prepared the message itself. Sermons should become exhortations, filled with intentional challenge and motivation. It should leave the hearers wanting to hear more, and also able to give a one sentence summary of what they have heard. Listen to the short exhortation and speech given by the now world famous Northern Irishman, Lt. Col. Tim Collins (played by Kenneth Branagh), the former commander of the 1st Royal Irish Regiment, of the British Army, on the eve of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. It is a quite telling speech that impacted not only this regiment, but the British Army, Prime Minister Tony Blair, and President George W. Bush.
There is another speech, made famous by the words of Shakespeare in Henry V, when Kenneth Branagh makes the speech on St. Crispin’s Day, before the famous Battle of Agincourt.
7. It is time to try a different approach to sermons on a Sunday. Here are a couple of examples to evaluate and consider. Look and the engaging and succinct presentation being made.
It is amazing what you can say in under 2 minutes.
I challenge any church congregation, and any regular “preacher” to consider preaching and teaching in a different manner, style and approach which they currently engage in. I challenge them to personally develop as communicators and use established and proven methodologies to improve their public speaking, such as Toastmasters. I challenge them to find ways to cut down the wordiness of their messages and to succinctly sum up what they need to say to no more than 15 minutes.
I challenge congregations to find and make ways to make church gatherings more participatory and engaging, and to move away from being entertained by “worship entertainment” and move to a more devout and worshipful approach and context, focussing on Christ and not the band. I invite church leaders to change the set up and focus and the seating arrangements, as well as a more open church experience for all who come and engage in the “church gathering celebration.”
How can we call our church gatherings a “family celebration” when most of the family are silent observers to the ministry of the few over the many? Just askin’!
THIS to me is the “best sermon” ever, and it is 4 minutes long!
~ Samuel Buick