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.