Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Prepared sermon or a participatory meeting?

A post at The Assembling of the Church, Sermon Central, got me thinking about sermons, sermon preparation and participation.

In recent years, I have made something of an idol of the sermon. The longer, the better. The more prep time, the better. Of course the more Reformed, the better. A twenty minute sermon was mailing it in, 45 minutes was adequate and an hour was better. I often stated quite confidently that the entire gathering should be prepping for the sermon. The most qualified man should give the sermon and everyone else should listen. I have long been a fan of expositional preaching. Open the Bible and preach the Bible from the Bible. I still think this is a great way to get into the Word. What I am wondering though is two-fold: should that be the focal point of the local assembly? Should that be something that is a passive monologue, one man preaches every week and the rest sit silently?

This is a hard one for me. I know both from experience and from reading the New Testament that there is not much justification for a “one man show” style of teaching in the Bible. I always look for command and example, is there a command for something or is there an example of something? I don’t see either when it comes to monologue preaching to believers. To unbelievers, sure. But not to the church. Still, I like the predictability of it. You show up and you get a 40 minute sermon like clockwork every week. Nice and tidy. I absolutely am convinced that we need to get into the Bible a lot more than we do currently. At least with lengthy expository sermons people are getting the Word. I am less convinced that it is healthy and Biblical in spite of my own personal bias in favor of lengthy, in-depth expository monologue sermons. I have to wonder if it is healthy, healthy for one man to do all of the preaching and for the rest of the people to be passive observers. It is little wonder that so many Christians have become spiritually atrophied and so many pastors are burned out.

The other thing that I started thinking about was not just that the sermon is the focal part of the weekly service, but how much time and effort is invested into that sermon in the week leading up to the Sunday service. One of the most unquestionable features of the contemporary church is the professional, vocational paid pastor who spends a sizable chunk of their week in sermon preparation.

Ligon Duncan, in an article for 9 Marks, came to the number of eight hours per sermon in prep time being appropriate. If a “full-time” pastor preaches two unique sermons on Sunday, that would mean that adequate prep time is 16 hours per week. In the spirit of full disclosure, I was not and am not an eight hours of preparation per sermon kind of guy. I normally would read over the text several times during the week, jot down notes as they came to me and assemble the final product on Saturday night. I spent even less prep time on Sunday evening sermons, usually just a rough outline of the text. Oddly (or perhaps not) I think that the Sunday evening sermons were “better” than the Sunday morning sermons I spent more prep time on. I was working a full-time job when I was also a bi-vocational pastor, so I often jotted notes during the day and worked on ideas on my laptop at lunch. I often thought it would be wonderful to be like my “full-time” brothers who had so much more time available to prepare a sermon each week.

Again, at the risk of further alienating my fellow Reformed believers, is it the most appropriate use of funds to pay a pastor to spend 2 or more days a week sequestered in their office preparing for a 45 minute monologue sermon on Sunday morning? To be a pastor in many churches means having a seminary degree with classes on preaching, owning lots of commentaries, reading books on preaching, attending seminars on preaching. There is a ton of focus on sermons because sermons are the focus of the gathering of the church. It sounds great to the ears, a firm commitment to verse by verse expository preaching by a man with seminary training. I don’t think it is as faithful to the Scriptures unfortunately.

So what is the alternative? I fancy myself to be a pretty good teacher and one of the things I really strive to do is draw people into conversation when I teach. Make them think, encourage them to participate. The best Sunday school classes I have taught were the ones where I spoke the least, where my role was to draw people into the conversation. The least effective were the lectures where I did all of the talking. I liked the lessons where I spoke the most because the focus was on me, but I also know that people learned more when they participated more. In spite of that, I then turned around and gave a monologue sermon because that was just what I was supposed to do. Why? Just because that is what pastors do, they preach in the second half of the service. I daresay I am far more effective in teaching when I am leading a group that is all participating than standing up front and talking for 45 minutes.

Last Sunday, as we gathered for the Lord's Supper, we met in the room around the table of bread and wine as we do every week. No one has a liturgy or even a program. No one is leading. Every man in the room is welcome to share as he is led, whether in prayer, or requesting a hymn or opening up the Word. It is unscripted and open, just a room of redeemed sheep edifying, praying, uplifting one another. Sometimes there is silence for several minutes, quiet reflection and prayer. Gasp! It is uncomfortable for me, I want something to fill in the silence. I crave that order and predictability. Participatory meetings are not orderly in the sense we think of in the contemporary church structure. They are not disorderly per se, but when we think of “orderly” we are thinking programmed, scheduled, regimented, regulative, liturgical, “order of worship”. I think Paul’s concern was less that we had a bulletin to follow and more that meetings not be chaotic.

This is not to demean preaching. I love preaching, I love to listen to preaching and I love to preach! Preaching is eminently Biblical. Teaching is eminently Biblical. A monologue sermon preceded by days of preparation? Not so much. What is becoming clear to me is that often the brother who works a regular job, has no theological training and is just praying or opening the Word has far more meaningful things to say than the famous preacher who spends his week preparing for a sermon. Singing a song extemporaneously is more meaningful than singing a battery of songs selected beforehand or watching a choir performing on stage. Prayer from different men as they are led is often more meaningful than one guy praying on behalf of the rest of the room. We need to examine our church practices from Scripture and ask ourselves if they are truly fulfilling the spirit and letter of what we see in the Word or if they are merely manmade inventions designed to replace what Scripture commands and describes. As I try to do that, I find myself in the uncomfortable position of realizing that I have been wrong about the gathering of God’s people for a very long time.


Faithful Servant said...

See that? Yep, it's a tear in my wee little eye!

Check it, if you look at the context of preaching and proclamation of the Word in the NT, what is it being preached? And, who is being preached to?

I'd say that's affirmation enough to conclude that preaching is not academically educated men "teaching" through monologue, but seeking out the lost and growing the church!

Arthur Sido said...

Is it fair to say that we "preach" to the lost and we "teach" believers?

Phillip said...

Hello Arthur,

I have been thinking on this lately and I wonder why we use the word "sermon" and "preach" as synonyms? While preaching is not central, neither is teaching, singing or even gathering together. So are we arguing for the wrong thing here? Isn't it Christ who is central and if he is not, then it does not matter what is occuring, monologue or participatory.

Faithful Servant:
The Bible clearly speaks of preaching and teaching. The content is always the same: the Redemptive work of Christ.

Arthur, thanks for the article.

Travis said...

That sounds spot-on to me!

Steve Martin said...

We gather around the Word.

The Word announced and handed over in the absolutuion.

The Word read in the scriptures (O.T., N.T., and a reading from the Pslams and one from the Gospels)

A sermon. One for the kids...on their level (kids need Christ, too)

And then one for everyone else where the Word is actually done to them.

The law kills them, and then the gospel is handed over freely (in the sermon) to raise them again.

Then we recieve the Word again (the visable Word) in the Sacrament of the altar.

A little of us...lots of Jesus.

My pastor gives excellent sermons. But usually it doesn't take more than 20 minutes or so to slay us all, and then raise us again with Christ's forgiveness.

Darren said...

Hey, came across your blog and just wanted to share a thought on sermon prep. If all those hours are spent so one can show off exegetical brilliance in the sermon, I agree, that's not the best use of time. But I personally easily spend over 10 hours preparing a sermon. Ligon Duncan is fast in comparison!

Why? Well, I always have things to say to the congregation. But I don't want my agenda using the Bible. I want the Bible's agenda to use me. The hours are to understand the text in its own right and just as importantly, to internalize it so as much as possible. So the point the Bible wants to say is not just something I talk about in an intellectual discourse, but I wrestle so that point becomes the point I want to say. Some of the sermons where the congregation told me they really felt like the text itself was speaking clearly and powerfully to them were ones I spent 15+ hours on.

Granted, it's not going to be a 1:1 relationship between time and quality (as with you, I've had some sermons which I had to assemble in a last-minute scramble, and through my utter weakness, the Holy Spirit moved powerfully with the Word). But I'd like to suggest that we might not be so quick to dismiss the long and hard study and wrestling with the text.

Blessings, brother!

Arthur Sido said...


I get what you are saying. I know some people, one in particular, who used the pulpit to demonstrate their ability to exegete the text for their own glory. I guess my bigger concern is not in prep time so much as it is in the excessive focus we have on the monologue sermon. In a normal Sunday service, the focus is on the pastor and the preaching and the vast majority of the people are sitting mutely watching. Then the sermon finishes and they shuffle out. I don't think that is a faithful or healthy way for the church to gather. It places an excessive burden on the preacher and asks too little from the congregation.

Darren said...

Hey Art,

I hear the concern, and I think a lot of people do. There is more emphasis today in reformed circles that the liturgy is a dialogue between God and his covenant people; the pattern of each element is that God speaks and we respond. I wonder if today's concern to "get people involved" comes from having lost the dialogical view of the whole divine service.

But the sermon monologue has a definitely place within that pattern. I think this also goes along with our concept of what the sermon is. If we reduce it to a theological and doctrinal lecture on one hand, or dispensing good advice on the other, then yeah, sermon is definitely over-rated. It'd be something we should graduate from like school :)

But if we see it as the means of grace where our idols are cast down and our affections towards God are warmed; where the Gospel promise drives out the unbelief that remains latent in us; where we most vividly meet Jesus and the Holy Spirit is making the dead alive as he did for the dry bones to whom Ezekiel preached, then preaching really does keep its centrality. After all, it's about grace -- receiving God's word. The people should be engaged in praising, praying, attending to the Word and Sacrament... but we have to remember that it's a day of rest where God serves and refreshes us. It's the Word that creates the church.

I learned a lot from M. Horton's "People and Place." I highly recommend it if you haven't come across it yet!

Travis said...

"But if we see it as the means of grace where our idols are cast down and our affections towards God are warmed..."

You know, I'm attracted to the rhetoric. I really am. But I fail to see how the Word relayed by my brother in the seat beside me is less a means of grace than the Word relayed by the man up front. What is with this insidious idea that the Holy Spirit inhabits the preacher's sermon in ways He'll never imbue words spoken by the laity?

These men are not our priests. They are here to train us (their fellow priests) to serve God and others (that is, to "do the work of ministry"). Can we stop treating them like they've got some direct line of communication with our Father that the rest of us lack?

Arthur Sido said...


The people should be engaged in praising, praying, attending to the Word and Sacrament... but we have to remember that it's a day of rest where God serves and refreshes us. It's the Word that creates the church.

That all sounds great, but I don't see why that is best delivered in a monologue sermon. The spoon feeding of the Word to God's people by one or a handful of men while the rest sit passively is responsible for the perpetual spiritual infancy of the church.

Like Travis I am attracted to the langauge you are using. I have often used it and find it rolls eaisly off the tongue. The disquieting journey I have been on the last year or so has demonstrated to me that regardless of how good it sounds, it really is a traditional view that is hard to defend from the text.

Darren said...

Good questions. You're right the rhetoric is often sweeter than the reality! It's hard to do justice to your question on a blog... plus I need to stop wasting time online and get back to sermon prep ;)

I'll just commend again "People and Place" as offering a pretty intriguing case and saying things far better than I can. It certainly challenged me!