Update on sermons and why we should abandon them (for the most part)


Last post I discussed the messages our dependence on sermons sends, and referred back to a study I had done on Sermons – not how we learn best?

A reader went to that page and found a bunch of broken links. I have therefore completely re-structured the page, and included quite a lot of new material.

There are a few interesting things to report.

Protestants are increasingly dependent on sermons

Several commentators commented that sermons seem to becoming an increasingly large part of traditional church services. A quick survey on Twitter suggested sermons might go from less than 15 minutes to more than an hour. The median was 36 minutes, and 85% were between 26 and 45 minutes.

Depending on how long the entire service runs for, these times could easily approach half the entire service.

Educationalists have moved on

There is very clear research to show that in universities, and also in churches, that monologue teaching (lectures or sermons) is a very poor method of communication. It is even poorer at catalysing change.

Other forms of communication, collectively known as active learning, have been shown to be more than twice as likely to be remembered.

Problems with sermons and lectures

People are only able to concentrate on monologue teaching for short periods – some say about 15 minutes, some say even less – before they need a break. After a break they can re-focus, though probably for a shorter time. People remember more of the first few minutes of a longer talk, and very little after that.

Therefore most of the information imparted is not even retained to the end of the talk, and even less will be remembered later.

For these reasons, teachers and educationalists have moved away from monologue teaching to more active methods of learning, via self discovery, use of visuals, reducing the length of time between breaks, and asking students to repeat things back or teach each other.

Sermons and the mission of the church

The mission of the church, given to us by Jesus, is to make disciples and minister to people’s needs. Sermons have been found to encourage people, but to do little to increase knowledge or change behaviour.

It is quite clear that they are an ineffective method. Study also shows that they are not a Biblical method.

So why are they still being used?

Perhaps it is because they are easier for pastors to prepare and deliver to a large captive audience, and easier for congregations who want to be encouraged but not have to change?

The mission of Jesus deserves better!

Lots of excuses are made to justify the continuation of a teaching method that is extremely inefficient and keeps people passive. But there are many things we could do to make change, listed in a possible order of gradual change:

  • Do less talking and show more short videos, or have someone else get up in the middle to share an example of how they applied a particular teaching.
  • Question whether exegetical Bible teaching is as important as Bible application to life and ministry – and adjust accordingly.
  • Instead of a 30 minute sermon, have two or three 10-15 minute ‘spots’ – one Bible teaching, one practical skills (by someone other than the pastor who has those gifts) and one testimony or report from a ministry group.
  • Cut the sermon to 15-20 minutes and then divide the congregation into small groups to discuss how they will use this teaching to do the mission of God.
  • Divide the congregation into groups and have them discuss and report back, with the pastor doing impromptu teaching via comments.
  • Do more teaching in smaller groups. In particular, practical ministry teaching can be done in the different ministry teams.

In summary, maybe use sermons when you have a visiting teacher who has something original and worthwhile to say to the needs of the congregation and is only visiting for a short time, but avoid them as much as possible for day-in-day-out teaching and discipling.

These are just ideas and examples. You can find many more ideas and over 50 references at Sermons – not how we learn best?. Also check out Church in a Circle blog.

I think this is all too important for us to ignore any longer.

What do you think?

Photo: MorgueFile

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  1. I think any format that encourages people to honestly consider their core values, and creates a safe and respectful space to do this is also a place where people would be encouraged to seriously think about God.

  2. Perhaps the most Biblically irresponsible statement of this post is, “It is quite clear that [sermons] are an ineffective method. Study also shows that they are not a Biblical method.” What do we do of places like Mark 1:38, where Jesus announced that he has come to “preach”? Or what of the instances all throughout Acts where the apostles are preaching, proclaiming the Gospel, and teaching through monologue and individuals are responding to Christ in faith by the hundreds? What of Paul’s imperative command to Timothy, a young leader in the church, in 2 Tim 4:2 to “Preach the word”?
    Scripture seems to say something altogether contradictory to the idea that preaching, or sermonizing, is ineffective or unbiblical.
    Another historical/psychological fallacy that drives the thought of this post is that “People are only able to concentrate on monologue teaching for short periods – some say about 15 minutes, some say even less – before they need a break.” History would disagree. Consider just as one example, the Puritans, who expected to sit through at least an hour and a half of preaching each Sunday. Really, for the better part of church history, sermons longer than 20 minutes have been the norm. The present culture’s “inability” to sit through a sermon of more than 30 minutes is a matter of conditioning, not mental ability.
    I would argue that sermons are actually quite effective for a number of reasons. (1) God uses them through his servants in the New Testament and the majority of church history to call people to repentance and faith. (2) For a communicator, sermons are the most efficient way of conveying a lot of important material in one uninterrupted session. (3) The public proclamation of the Gospel is expected from Pastors/Elders/Overseers, and is, alongside prayer, their primary duty. When I preach, I expect to spend at least 15-20 hours in study and writing for the sermon. It is not a light responsibility for me. As the focal piece of corporate worship, preaching deserves this sort of commitment to preparation. The Gospel is worthy of this level of preparation. I fear that those who throw together sermons on Friday afternoon take the power of the preached Word too lightly, and think of themselves too highly. It takes a lot of work to effectively exposit the Word of God for the listener, but by my accounting of Scripture, preaching the Word (especially in the context of corporate worship) is indispensable.
    Is there merit to small groups? Absolutely! In fact, as an associate pastor of a moderately sized SBC church, I see a great need for more small group teaching and discipleship for the edification it brings to the church. Nevertheless, the publicly proclaimed word (most often through preached sermons) is the primary task of the pastor/elder, and a necessity for all believers to practice as well as sit under.

  3. G’day Stephen, thanks for reading my blog and for taking the trouble to comment. But I want to take issue with some of what you say – I hope you don’t mind.
    “Perhaps the most Biblically irresponsible statement of this post is, “It is quite clear that [sermons] are an ineffective method. Study also shows that they are not a Biblical method.” What do we do of places like Mark 1:38, where Jesus announced that he has come to “preach”?”
    This is a strong statement, and I certainly don’t want to be “Biblically irresponsible”! But I wonder whether you have based this comment on English translations, or on the Greek? In the longer paper I reference in my post, I report this:
    “The several different Greek words translated “preach” in many Bibles (kerysso, euaggelizo are the most common, but there are several others) are better translated as “proclaim”, “declare”, or “announce”. Greek scholars agree that they are used to describe the proclamation of the good news to the world, and never refer to anything like a modern sermon to a group of believers.”
    What I said accurately represents the Greek of the New Testament. I encourage you to read that paper if you haven’t already, especially the section on sermons in the NT, which shows that in the NT church, they were much more likely to use dialogue, testimony and shared teaching, encouragement and prophetic input from the body, not a monologue sermon.
    “The present culture’s “inability” to sit through a sermon of more than 30 minutes is a matter of conditioning, not mental ability.”
    This may well be true. But granted that is the case, should we use our teaching opportunities to try to overcome this deficiency by focusing on personal development and concentration, or should we meet people where they are at and focus on what Jesus has to say to them using teaching methods better suited to their needs? I think the answer is clear.
    “preaching the Word (especially in the context of corporate worship) is indispensable”
    As a minister, you are bound to want this to be true and believe it to be true. But the surveys show otherwise. You might put all that effort faithfully into your preparation, and doubtless you deliver an exemplary teaching (I mean that seriously). But if your congregation is either not learning and retaining nearly as much as you’d like to think, or else gaining knowledge without following Jesus more closely, than what good has been done?
    I honestly think our extreme dependence on monologue sermons is one of the major reasons why the church is so stagnant today.
    I understand this sounds threatening to you, but can I encourage you to read the paper I have prepared, check out the references and pray for God’s wisdom on what will best advance his kingdom? And please hang around, for there will be more on this matter in the next few posts.
    Thanks again.

  4. Having left a Protestant tradition that centered on long sermons, I find the Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox Church to be a far more effective means to spiritual growth. The first half of the Divine Liturgy begins with prayers and music to focus the worshipers on the needs of others, and our relationship with God. This is followed by readings from the Holy Scriptures. The sermon or homily is based on the readings and last less than 15 minutes. The second half of the Divine Liturgy consists of prayers and music leading up to the consecration of the bread and wine. The Divine Liturgy ends with Holy Communion and closing prayers.

  5. Hi Marc, thanks for your comment. I have read of a number of people who have moved from more evangelical churches to Orthodox or Catholic because they appreciate the liturgy.

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