Sunday 28 September 2014

What Are Sermons For?

Okay, as an occasional preacher I might be expected to know this.

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.

Sunday 21 September 2014

All Change

We spent yesterday driving down the motorway to deliver our daughter (and a huge pile of stuff) to her new accommodation as she starts life at university. Very stressful and rather teary ... she was upset too ;)

Meanwhile our son, who graduated in July, looks like he has a job and will be leaving home in a couple of weeks. Likely another stressful, teary occasion, along a different motorway.

Then it will be just the two of us, at least during term time. However will we cope, after 22 years of living as parents, first and foremost?

It has to be said that an awful lot of other parents have been through this before us, and somehow survived. It's even labelled a 'syndrome', so it must be serious - and there's loads of advice all over the internet. The Independent has a good article here which ends with some sensible 'coping strategies'.

The site where I got the rather super picture above (just click on the picture to go there) begins with a good description of Empty Nest Syndrome, although by some sleight of hand it ends up plugging a book called Crowded Nest Syndrome. On the way it makes the point that often "the anticipation of children leaving home is more frightening than when they actually do leave". I think for us this rings a bell. And it brings back memories of earlier, similarly scary transitions, like their first day at school, which worked out okay in the end.

At heart I think the issue is about coping with change, especially at a time of life when it seems everything is changing too fast. Except that this always seems to be the way with change: nothing much seems to happen for ages, then suddenly loads of changes pile up on you at once. Leaving home ourselves, getting married, having children - they're all typically at busy times in our lives, they're all times when everything changes, and they are all times when a positive approach really helps.

Take getting married: back in the day a wife used to be known as a 'ball and chain', and my in-laws-to-be were horrified at the idea of their daughter getting married before she had the chance to 'see the world'. Actually, seeing the world together as a couple was a lot more fun. It's a matter of appreciating and enjoying the positives and opportunities that the life change brings.

Similarly with having children. It cut down on 'seeing the world' - so much extra stress and hassle in long distance travel with young children - but there are so many opportunities to do new things and enjoy new experiences together as a family.

And now we are back to being a couple again - but a middle-aged couple this time, with grown up children experiencing their own adventures. I don't know what new opportunities this will bring, but I'm sure they will be there; we just need to be alert and open, ready to enjoy them.

The past is a wonderful (hopefully) part of the way things are, and the future is a great unknown, but the present is an amazing gift, always full of unexpected things, ready for us to wonder at, to learn from and, especially, to enjoy.

Wherever you are, whatever changes you are going through, may God give you the great gift of enjoying your present, for all it is worth.