Over nearly eight decades—as infant, child, adult—I’ve been part of at least a dozen churches. Large and small, urban and rural. As I visualize the arrangement of the meeting room in each church building, one thing stands out: the pulpit. Usually of wood, it was ornate or plain. Sometimes just a simple stand. Almost always on an elevated platform, it served as the focal point of the layout. Rows of pews or chairs faced it. And from it came the main event of the gathering, the sermon.
Throughout my upbringing in the church culture, it seemed only natural that the sermon serve as the centerpiece of our Sunday meetings. Why? Because of its length and placement in the agenda. And because that was all I had ever known. Today, it’s easy to assume that the sermon and the way we “do church” is the way first-century believers must have done it. Pulpits and sermons—both appear so essential to church as we practice it now.
But more and more church leaders are questioning our customary Sunday ways. They are seeing that church-as-silent-audience cannot measure up to church-as-one-anothering seen in the New Testament. The most recent example of movement in this direction just came to my attention—an October 2019, Premier Christianity article by Sky Jethani: “The Case Against Sermon-Centric Sundays.”
In his article, Jethani, a pastor and former Managing and Executive Editor of Leadership Journal, “explains why digital technology is disrupting our 500-year-old emphasis on lengthy Sunday sermons.” He traces some of the dramatic leaps in humankind’s ability to communicate. We’ve gone from scrolls to hand-written codexes to printing presses to electronic devices. Each step in this evolution of information-sharing affected the shape of Christian meeting practices.
Technology has Transformed Us
But, says Jethani, “With the advent of digital technology and smartphones, we are witnessing the most significant shift in communication since the printing press. . . .Anyone with a smartphone may access thousands of sermons from anywhere, anytime. . . . This low demand and high supply means the market for Bible instruction has reduced the cost to virtually zero. . . . There is a lot of excellent, orthodox content available online – but few churches are helping their people find and engage with it. What if church leaders reallocated some of the time that had been devoted to sermon preparation, and instead used it to curate the best online biblical resources and content for their people to engage with, Monday through Saturday?”
I can personally confirm this easy access to great teaching. Three times a week I spend nearly an hour in a fitness center. There, rather than watching the TV monitors on the exercise machines, I listen to some of finest biblical scholars and teachers on the planet. How? By tuning into YouTube on my iPhone, which delivers the messages right into my ears.
Assessing the Sermon
The sermon, though, continues as the focal point of most congregational meetings. This in spite of the absence in first-century gatherings of sermons of about the same length by the same person week after week. David Norrington, in the conclusion to his book, To Preach or Not to Preach: The Church’s Urgent Question, writes: “In the New Testament churches the growth into spiritual maturity of both individuals and communities was achieved by a variety of means, which did not include the regular sermon.” He says sermons may only have become “standard practice . . . as late as the 4th century.” Martin Luther and other reformers made sermons the centerpiece of church meetings. John Calvin called the preacher “the mouth of God.”
Today, Jethani, says, “Most churches have inherited a 16th Century model that is increasingly unsustainable with 21st Century realities. . . . Pastors carry a Reformation mindset that sees Bible teaching as a scarcity, which makes their sermons valuable, while millennials with a digital mindset recognize the abundance of Bible teaching available, making most pastors’ sermons, and therefore Sunday attendance, unnecessary.”
It may seem to millennials that getting together with other believers is not needed. Yet at the same time, these younger people typically long for the kind of relationships and one-anothering called for in Jesus’ New Command (John 13:34-35). Could it be that at least part of their reason for considering church meetings “unnecessary” may be that passive-audience church meetings are all they have ever known?
Jethani cautions, “both biblical instruction and gathering with believers remains essential to our faith and mission. There is” he says, an epidemic of loneliness in both the US and UK. We are more connected than ever digitally, but more isolated than ever relationally. Attending a church with hundreds of others, all facing a stage and listening to a preacher, does little to overcome this sense of disconnection.”
That’s a point I make in Curing Sunday Spectatoritis: From Passivity to Participation in Church: “Audience mode, while providing some sense of being together, allows us to assemble with our individuality unchallenged. Audience mode allows me to come and go with little or no perception of responsibility for the other spectators. Audience mode provides slight if any opportunity to lay down my life for others or to risk using my Spirit-given gifts. Audience mode means that, in spite of some surface socializing, I am free to leave just as isolated and self-absorbed as I arrived.”
What can we do in lieu of the 16th Century model of preaching? Jethani is not asking us to abandon messages from qualified teachers. Neither is he “advocating one new model.” Instead, Jethani points to two promising directions being practiced by some churches.
The first approach restores the Lord’s Table, rather than the pulpit, as the main focus of the church meeting,. That Table, Jethani points out, “can’t be digitized. Communion is an incarnate experience. The bread is held, blessed, broken, given, and eaten. Believers gather to pray, confess, absolve and affirm. The entire enterprise requires engagement and activity. It cannot be passively listened to via headphones. The body and blood cannot be downloaded or streamed.” Of course, history teaches that even the Table can be co-opted as an opportunity for clerical domination.
Jethani’s second suggestion notes what Francis Chan did after leaving his California megachurch. He began a system of interconnected house churches, “which allows the church gatherings to focus on prayer, fellowship, practical application, relationship-building, and encouragement.” Such an arrangement lets church leaders spend more time developing disciples and less time on sermon preparation.
Earlier blogs in this website have identified other ways to make meetings less sermon-centric. Click on these links:
The Sticking Point?
What does Jethani see as the most formidable barrier to leaving the sermon-centric model and moving in new directions? He writes: “I suspect the most significant obstacle is within preachers’ hearts. Are we willing to give up the spotlight? Are we willing to step aside from the pulpit and welcome other gifted Bible teachers into our ministries? Are we willing to lay down our lives our microphones and our egos for our sheep? The future shape of the Church depends on how we answer these questions.”
Is continuing on the only path we have ever known the best way? The biblical way?