What do sermons say about churches?


Pretty much all Protestant churches have sermons – generally as the centrepiece of the weekly service. Sometimes we learn from them, sometimes we don’t.

In fact studies by educationalists show that they are a poor method of teaching or changing behaviour, though they do generally make people feel good (see Sermons – not how we learn best?).

So why do we use such a poor communication method? What does their prevalence tell us? I’ve been musing about this lately.

Here’s a few thoughts that have been running through my head.

Sermons and the bigger picture

The main activity in most churches is the weekly, generally Sunday, service. In it, congregations generally sit in rows facing a stage while people deliver content to them – music for congregational singing, announcements, prayers, Bible readings, perhaps a performed item, a testimony or a eucharistic ritual (known by several different names) – and a sermon.

Depending on the church, the sermon might take 25-50% of the service time and would most commonly be given by a Bible College trained “professional”. The sermon would often be the main form of teaching or encouragement a church member would receive, though home Bible studies are popular in many churches.

This dependence on the sermon sends some interesting messages:

Evangelism and christian growth is all about having more information

Sermons are one-way communication (when they actually do communicate) of information or exhortation. They do very little effective to train and equip people, help them learn for themselves or put what they learn into practice. They imply that all we need to do is learn more and we’ll do better.

Congregations can’t or won’t learn for ourselves

I was talking to an experienced school teacher recently about how teaching has changed over the years, from teachers giving instruction and students writing it down, to students researching online and presenting their findings to the class and the teacher’s comment.

Learning is so much easier these days. We can find almost anything we want online (just as preachers sometimes do) and if we choose wisely we will be receiving information from people more expert than most preachers. We only really need preachers if they have a particular insight or we can’t or won’t seek out information ourselves.

Academic knowledge is what we all need ….

Generally academic study is a requirement for being a preacher, suggesting that is the sort of knowledge we value most. Other types of understandings (e.g. experience, practical knowledge, the gifts of the Spirit) are not so valued, and neither is practical training via mentoring, self-discovery, discussion, or hands-on training, even though these are generally more effective.

…. and only trained people have it

Many churches give preaching duties generally, and sometimes almost exclusively, to trained people. Of course Bible College gives people a useful background, but is it necessarily true that a young recent college graduate has more to offer to a congregation than a wise, godly, older person who hasn’t been to Bible College?

The Bible alone isn’t enough

Many sermons do little more than expand a little on the Bible passage being considered. Do we need the expansion to get the message? Sometimes we may, but always?

Sometimes after I have listened to a sermon, I try to summarise it in simple point form – and then I ask myself what would have been lost if only the simple points were given? Often, not much.

We are not concerned for the individual

Most congregations are made up of people in different stages of life, different levels of maturity, and facing different challenges. A sermon to 200 people either ignores the specific needs of many of them or assumes they all just need background Bible knowledge and they can work out the rest for themselves.

Control, ease or habit?

Other methods of communication have been proven to be far more effective than monologue sermons in teaching or changing behaviour. The continued use of the sermon despite this can surely only mean that the church and its leader(s):

  • want to control what the congregation hears and so they keep who does the teaching under strict control; or
  • they feel it is simply easier to teach everybody the same thing at once rather than take the more difficult route of using better and more individual approaches; or
  • they are in a rut and no-one wants to rock the boat.

Thinking again

I don’t necessarily think all these messages are always true. Nor that they are always wrong. I don’t think that sermons are always inappropriate, nor that they are never useful.

But I do think each of these messages needs to be considered. Why continue to rely on a discipling method that has so many drawbacks?

What’s your experience?

Do you feel you learn and retain much from sermons? Do you change as a result? Could you have done the same without the sermon?

Have you had similar thoughts as I have, or do you think I’ve completely missed the mark?

Photo Credit: pstephan1187 via Compfight cc

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  1. I agree with your position. Being new to my local church hampers direct involvement in services. I sometimes find it difficult to stay awake during sermons partly because one main idea has been unneccessarily complicated by a maze of anecdote and scriptural evidence. I am devising a ‘home-church’ anti-organisation for Christians to share experiences, ideas and so on.

  2. Hi Jeff, thanks for your comment, and your agreement. I’d be interested to hear more about your plans. If you are thinking about alternatives, there are a few websites that may help you:
    Church in a circle – look around a bit and you’ll find many useful ideas on this Aussie site.
    Simply church – Felicity has been focusing a lot lately on women in the church, but if you go back a bit there’s some good stuff there. House2House also has good stuff (the two sites are related and both from USA).
    Oikos is another Aussie site which supports people in house churches.
    There are a few relevant pages here too if you look around.
    I wish you all the best in this path.

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