Why sermons?

The sermon is generally the most important element of Protestant church services, but there are serious doubts about its effectiveness and Biblical basis.

I have done a little investigation of the effectiveness of sermons, and the possible alternatives (see Sermons – not how we learn best?), and this is what I found:

Secular educators have found ….

  • Monologue lectures are a very poor way to communicate knowledge – most people can’t concentrate long enough, and are later able to recall very little of what was said.
  • People retain far more of what they’ve learnt when they can participate in their learning and discuss and review matters on the way through (commonly called ‘active learning’).
  • Schools, universities, colleges and businesses are adopting active learning approaches.

Meanwhile, in the churches …..

  • Studies have shown similar results. On the whole, people do not learn well from monologue sermons, nor are they very likely to change their behaviour. The only significant benefits are emotional encouragement.
  • Monologue sermons are not in keeping with our culture nor the best educational practices.
  • Some ministers and churches are using active learning approaches.

The New Testament supports this

  • Jesus and Paul rarely used monologue teaching methods. Jesus used parables and ‘on-the-job’ training while Paul’s proclamation often included two-way communication.
  • There is no New Testament teaching to use monologue, exegetical sermons aimed at increasing knowledge alone. Rather, the whole christian community was to share in the encouragement, teaching and discerning of what the Spirit was saying, and the aim was not just knowledge but to train up disciples who would follow in the way of Jesus.
  • It seems that sermons first became common in the church when professional clergy were established at the time of Constantine, and the often self-aggrandizing practices of rhetoric and oratory were used.

So what next?

Sermonising may seem to be efficient – it allows the trained and paid staff to keep control of the teaching and speak to a lot of people at once – but it is of little value in making disciples. Congregations are undoubtedly used to it, and expect it of their paid ministers, but it encourages people to be passive, and so stifles the work of the kingdom and the spread of the gospel.

Things need to change!

And there are better options, which use ‘active learning and replace the monologue sermon with something that is learner-focused, multi-voiced, open-ended (“be prepared to leave loose ends and to live with uncertainty, to run the risk of allowing people space to think, to reflect, to explore”) and dialogue-based. Approaches include:

  • Have several shorter talks on different, practical subjects by different people.
  • More engagement between the speaker and the audience especially in the form of what some call ‘student active breaks’.
  • One-on-one mentoring which is two-way and experiential.
  • In small groups or simple churches, where everyone can contribute.
  • More mature christians giving practical on-the-job ministry training to younger members within ministry teams (e.g. evangelism or pastoral care teams).

For more details, references and quotes, see Sermons – not how we learn best?. If you want to do more reading after that, I recommend Interactive Preaching by Stuart Murray Williams.

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  1. Thanks for that. Yes, it is more confirmation that we are using ineffective methods. I will add that to the page on the topic, and probably to another blog post,

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