Sunday, 28 September 2014
What Are Sermons For?
But it's not really a question 'ministers' and preachers commonly ask. There is a stock answer - preaching & teaching - but that doesn't stand up well to closer inspection.
I am currently leading a review of our Parish Communion service, and how it can be more meaningful to occasional visitors, so I am inspecting more closely. At the moment I have more questions than answers ... not always a bad place to be.
'Preaching', in the Bible, means proclaiming: telling people good news about Jesus, or God's Kingdom. It's not news if people already know about it, so what's the point of preaching to a church congregation? 'Preaching to the converted' seems a meaningless exercise.
'Teaching' implies you expect people to know or understand more at the end than before you started. So in a church context you would expect people who have been listening to sermons for years and years to have a really good overall knowledge and understanding of the Bible and of Christian doctrine. My experience is that this seems to only apply to those who also attend some form of Bible Study group; otherwise Bible knowledge amongst long-term churchgoers seems more or less at the old Sunday School level.
Oddly, the same questions apply to different church traditions. Baptists have a different style of sermon, and they have more people in study groups, but you still get preaching to the converted and you still get long term members with minimal Bible knowledge. You also get quite a lot of telling people what to do: it's a lever of control for the priest in charge.
As I say, I don't have much in the way of answers to this, but I do have a few thoughts.
The first is that whilst preaching to the converted seems meaningless, it can have a point if the object is to give 'the converted' tools for sharing their faith with others. Articulating what we believe can be difficult, so having it presented in a clear and meaningful way in a sermon can be helpful in clarifying our own thoughts and words.
Secondly, if teaching is a part of the purpose then we really need to update our communication methods. A formal monologue, without visual support, is widely recognised, at least by the rest of the world, to be an ineffective means of communicating and teaching. People learn by hearing and seeing and doing - different people weight these three differently but everyone needs a balance. Sitting passively while a preacher talks at you is no way to learn anything. So, if teaching is seen as important, the sermon slot needs to incorporate visuals and actions - not a monologue but a dialogue (polylogue? - apparently not).
Sermon slot as a lever? I'm not a priest in charge, so that isn't really my area. A common example is the sermon telling us we should be giving more money and/or time to the church; there is some point to these but the way they are done tends to leave me feeling cynical. We did have a subtler example this morning with the sermon slot given to a lady from an organisation who arrange visits for the housebound and lonely in the area. Our priest in charge is a great believer in church members engaging with the community, so this is him presenting us with an opportunity to do just that. Fair play to him.
At the end of the day, the purpose of a sermon slot is really not my call. Preachers are there to serve the congregation, not to impose on it.
So what do you think sermons should be for? If you are a churchgoer, what works for you? If not, what do you consider would be a positive experience during a 15-30 minute period following one or more Bible readings?
I genuinely would like to know.