Though revered for five centuries, the conventional sermon has negatively impacted the church in a number of ways.
First, the sermon makes the preacher the virtuoso performer of the regular church gathering. As a result, congregational participation is hampered at best and precluded at worst. The sermon turns the church into a preaching station. The congregation degenerates into a group of muted spectators who watch a performance. There is no room for interrupting or questioning the preacher while he is delivering his discourse. The sermon freezes and imprisons the functioning of the body of Christ. It fosters a docile priesthood by allowing pulpiteers to dominate the church gathering week after week.'
Second, the sermon often stalemates spiritual growth. Because it is a one-way affair, it encourages passivity. The sermon prevents the church from functioning as intended. It suffocates mutual ministry. It smothers open participation. This causes the spiritual growth of God's people to take a nosedive."
As Christians, we must function if we are to mature (see Mark 4:24-25 and Hebrews 10:24-2 5). We do not grow by passive listening week after week. In fact, one of the goals of New Testament—styled preaching and teaching is to get each of us to function (Ephesians 4:11-16)22 It is to encourage us to open our mouths in the church meeting (1 Corinthians 12-14).' The conventional sermon hinders this very process.
The nineteenth-century historian Edwin Hatch was one of the first to challenge the sermon. Tlie sermon sells itself as the major facilitator of Christian growth. But this idea is both misleading and misdirected. : 1 For more on this topic, see Viola, Reimagining Church.
This passage also points out that functioning is necessary for spiritual maturity. The meeting that is described in this passage is clearly a church gathering.
Third, the sermon preserves the unbiblical clergy mentality. It creates an excessive and pathological dependence on the clergy. The sermon makes the preacher the religious specialist—the only one having anything worthy to say. Everyone else is treated as a second-class Christian—a silent pew warmer. (While this is not usually voiced, it is the unspoken reality)"
How can the pastor learn from the other members of the body of Christ when they are muted? How can the church learn from the pastor when its members cannot ask him questions during his oration?" How can the brothers and sisters learn from one another if they are prevented from speaking in the meetings?
The sermon makes "church" both distant and impersonal." It deprives the pastor of receiving spiritual sustenance from the church. And it deprives the church of receiving spiritual nourishment from one another. For these reasons, the sermon is one of the biggest roadblocks to a functioning priesthood!77
Fourth, rather than equipping the saints, the sermon de-skills them. It matters not how loudly ministers drone on about "equipping the saints for the work of the ministry," the truth is that the contemporary sermon preached every week has little power to equip God's people for spiritual service and functioning." Unfortunately, however, many of God's people are just as addicted to hearing sermons as many preachers are addicted to preaching them." By contrast, New Testament—styled preaching and teaching equips the church so that it can function without the presence of a clergyman."
For instance, I (Frank) recently attended a conference where a
Some pastors have been known to give voice to the mindless idea that "all that sheep do is say 'baa' and eat grass." Reuel L Howe, Partners in Preaching: Clergy and Laity in Dialogue (New York: Seabury Press, 1967), 36. George W. Swank, Dialogical Style in Preaching (Valley Forge: Hudson Press, 1981), 24. Kevin Craig, "Is the Sermon Concept Biblical?" Searching Together 15 (1986), 22.
While many pastors talk about "equipping the saints" and "liberating the laity," promises to free the flaccid laity and equip the church for ministry virtually always prove to be empty. So long as the pastor is still dominating the church service by his sermonics, God's people are not free to function in the gathering. Therefore, "equipping the saints" is typically empty rhetoric. For those of us who regard the sermon to be exotically boring, we understand the feeling of being "preached to death." The quote by the nineteenth-century English writer and clergyman Sydney Smith captures the sentiment: "He deserves to be preached to death by wild curates!"
Consider Paul's method of preaching to an infant church, then leaving it on its own for long periods of time. For details, see Frank Viola, So You Want to Start a House Church? First-Century Styled Church Planting for Today (Jacksonville, FL: Present Testimony Ministry, 2003).
contemporary church planter spent an entire weekend with a network of house churches. Each day, the church planter submerged the churches in a revelation of Jesus Christ. But he also gave them very practical instruction on how to experience what he preached. He then left them on their own, and he probably will not return for months. The churches, having been equipped that weekend, have been having their own meetings where every member has contributed something of Christ in the gathering through exhortations, encouragements, teachings, testimonies, writing new songs, poems, etc. This is essentially New Testament apostolic ministry.
Fifth, today's sermon is often impractical. Countless preachers speak as experts on that which they have never experienced. Whether it be abstract/theoretical, devotional/inspirational, demanding/compelling, or entertaining/amusing, the sermon fails to put the hearers into a direct, practical experience of what has been preached. Thus the typical sermon is a swimming lesson on dry land! It lacks any practical value. Much is preached, but little ever lands. Most of it is aimed at the frontal lobe. Contemporary pulpiteerism generally fails to get beyond disseminating information and on to equipping believers to experience and use that which they have heard.
In this regard, the sermon mirrors its true father—Greco-Roman rhetoric. Greco-Roman rhetoric was bathed in abstraction." It "involved forms designed to entertain and display genius rather than instruct or develop talents in others."" The contemporary polished sermon can warm the heart, inspire the will, and stimulate the mind. But it rarely if ever shows the team how to leave the huddle. In all of these ways, the contemporary sermon fails to meet its billing at promoting the kind of spiritual growth it promises. In the end, it actually intensifies the impoverishment of the church.' The sermon acts like a momentary stimulant. Its effects are often short-lived.
Let's be honest. There are scores of Christians who have been
Craig, (s the Sermon Concept Biblical?" 25. Norrington, To Preach or Not, 23.
Clyde H. Reid, The Empty Pulp/t New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1967), 47-49.
sermonized for decades, and they are still babes in Christ." We Christians are not transformed simply by hearing sermons week after week. We are transformed by regular encounters with the Lord Jesus Christ." Those who minister, therefore, are called to preach Christ and not information about Him. They are also called to make their ministry intensely practical. They are called not only to reveal Christ by the spoken word, but to show their hearers how to experience, know, follow, and serve Him. The contemporary sermon too often lacks these all-important elements.
If a preacher cannot bring his hearers into a living spiritual experience of that which he is ministering, the results of his message will be short-lived. Therefore, the church needs fewer pulpiteers and more spiritual facilitators. It is in dire need of those who can proclaim Christ and know how to deploy God's people to experience Him who has been preached." And on top of that, Christians need instruction on how to share this living Christ with the rest of the church for their mutual edification.
Consequently, the Christian family needs a restoration of the first-century practice of mutual exhortation and mutual ministry." For the New Testament hinges spiritual transformation upon these two things." Granted, the gift of teaching is present in the church. But teaching is to come from all the believers (1 Corinthians 14:26, 31) as well as from those who are specially gifted to teach (Ephesians 4: 1 1 , James 3:1). We move far outside of biblical bounds when we allow teaching to take the form of a conventional sermon and relegate it to a class of professional orators.
Alexander R. Hay, The New Testament Order for Church and Missionary (Audu bon, NJ: New Testament Missionary Union, 1947), 292-293, 414.
One may encounter Christ either in glory or in suffering (2 Corinthians 3:18; Hebrews 12:1ff.).
Acts 3:20, 5:42, 8:5, 9:20; Galatians 1:6; Colossians 1:27-28. Whether one is preaching (kerygma) to unbelievers or teaching (didache) believers, the message to both believer and unbeliever alike is Jesus Christ. C. H. Dodd, The Apostolic Preaching and Its Developments (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1963), 7ff. Speaking of the early church, Michael Green writes, "They preached a person. Their message was frankly Christocentric. Indeed, the gospel is referred to simply as Jesus or Christ: 'He preached Jesus to him ... Jesus the man, Jesus crucified, Jesus risen, Jesus exalted to the place of power in the universe ... Jesus who meantime was present among His people in the Spirit The risen Christ was unambiguously central in their message." Green, Evangel/sm in the Earty Church (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1970), 150. For more on this topic, see Viola, Reimagining Church.
Hebrews 3:12-13, 10:24-26. Notice the emphasis on "one another" in these passages. It is mutual exhortation that the author has in view.
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