How sermons are stifling christianity

Cartoon of people sleeping in church

Preaching is one of the mainstays of Protestant christianity (though not so important in Catholic and Orthodox churches). Bible colleges teach how to do it, websites tell us how important it is, and those considered good preachers can become celebrities.

Yet the words “sermon” and “preaching” have negative connotations to many people, jokes about sermons abound (did you know that if all the people who sleep through sermons were laid end to end, they’d be more comfortable?) and educationalists and psychologists tell us they are not very effective in teaching or changing people.

Recently several friends, strong and active christians who attend church regularly, made strong anti-sermon comments. It made me think again, that sermons are stifling christianity.

Here’s how.

Not the intended effect

The sermons at many Protestant churches make up close to half the Sunday service. The preachers believe what they have to say is important and they put hours into preparation. They believe explaining the Word of God is important for the christians in their care to learn, live and grow.

But several of my friends don’t feel that preaching does much (positive) for them:

  • One said she found going to church “soul destroying” – her problem wasn’t only the sermons, but they are a major part of the services she attends.
  • Two friends, both with good university degrees, and one employed as a teacher, commented that they can’t concentrate during sermons, and so they can rarely remember what was said.
  • One said she thought the preachers at her church are better than average and so pleasant to listen to, but nevertheless she thought most of their sermons were not relevant to life, she never remembered them later, and they made no difference to her.
  • Another friend, an honours university student used to sitting in lectures, said sermons went right over his head, and several times when I asked a day or two later what they were about, he could remember very little.
  • Another thinks going to hear speakers on a subject of interest can be helpful, but most sermons aren’t practically relevant to life as a christian, very narrow in their focus, and often we know as much as the preacher anyway and so don’t learn anything we don’t know already.

Remember, these are strong, active christians, some of them leaders in their church. What’s going on? Is the fault with them?

Life confirms truth

None of this should be surprising to us, for:

  • Research in churches and universities shows that monologues are a poor way to teach and to lead to change.
  • There are better ways to make disciples.
  • There are good reasons for all this
    • Sermons as we know them today are not recommended or used in the New Testament (the word “preaching” in 2 Timothy 4:2 and 1 Corinthians 1:21 doesn’t refer to what we would call sermons today, and is probably better translated as “proclaiming”).
    • They don’t suit the way our God-given brains are made. To learn and grow, we need to be actively involved in the communication, and not have too many facts thrown at us too quickly. Listening passively to a monologue will inevitably make little impact on most of us most of the time.

There are better alternatives

Communication is much more than speaking (the message needs to be heard, received, considered and assimilated) and discipleship requires more than teaching – but example, serious consideration, commitment, practice and learning to be guided by God. Most sermons achieve very little of value (people enjoy them but don’t remember much or change much) because they keep the congregation passive, and because they try to give answers rather than teach and encourage people how to reach the answers themselves. (If they really worked, wouldn’t most of us know it all by now?)

Contrast information-based sermons with Jesus’ use of parables, which give few clear answers, but encourage questioning and consideration.

So if we want to strengthen disciples, there are many better methods than preaching (Church in a Circle blog is full of good ideas if you search through it), and there are many better ways to teach in a service than sermons.

The keys are to:

  • use different people’s gifts (not just the pastor),
  • keep people involved and active,
  • where possible, learn in the situation, not abstractly,
  • give people opportunities to practice what they are learning,
  • have people share experiences, not just give abstract teaching,
  • aim at strengthening discipleship, not just communicating information,
  • help people learn for themselves (the internet is our friend),
  • teaching should be relevant to life and the issues people are facing and the questions they are asking.

This is the way to stifle the church

The pastor is just one person, or perhaps part of a small team. To do its mission, the church needs people with all the gifts active in using their gifts. If the congregation is kept passive during the sermon, given little opportunity to contribute (beyond arranging the chairs or making scones) and less opportunity to make decisions, they will become disengaged consumers – complaining when the professionals don’t give them what they want, and unlikely to contribute their spiritual gifts to the church because they haven’t had the opportunity, training or incentive to do so.

The church’s mission will suffer, because the pastor can’t do everything needed because he doesn’t have the time and he doesn’t have all the gifts. It will be like an army where only the generals are fighting – not a bad idea to reduce the killing, but a bad idea for the church!

But you don’t understand, say the pastors!

Many pastors would love their congregations to be more active and take some of the load off them. But no matter what they do, it doesn’t happen. A small number of lay people do the bulk of the work, and so much doesn’t get done.

But leadership is about finding the best ways to overcome problems. If the congregation won’t volunteer enough, then it is time for pastors to reconsider their approach. And a significant thing will be to change from sermons to something that will gradually re-engage the congregation. If many refuse to budge, perhaps focus on training and equipping the ones who are willing, starting newcomers on a different track, and making changes as they are possible.

What can the rest of us do?

This is the hardest part. Pastors are wedded to sermons. That’s what they have been trained to do. Their self esteem is built on their preaching. They often don’t know how to make disciples any other way. Sometimes they feel the need to control.

Those of us who know better have to be sensitive and compassionate. Criticism and confrontation will rarely bring about positive change. But there may be opportunities to influence, perhaps even an opportunity to participate in “experimental” services using better approaches.

Sometimes, sadly, we may even feel we have to leave and go somewhere else.

But one way or another, sermons are choking the life out of western christianity, and something’s got to change.

Let’s pray that it will.


More on this site, including copious references:

Websites teaching that preaching is terribly important:

Cartoon: ASBO Jesus

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  1. I’ve just watched the ABC program Q&A. It seems to me that audience participation is a key to keeping people interested. Why not have the Pastor sit out the front and answer questions from the congregation about the Bible, philosophy, society or whatever they want to ask ?
    Might liven things up a bit anyway.

  2. My pastor teaches from the Bible, verse by verse and I find his teaching quite riveting. Partly because he gives a history and background while focusing on the spiritual aspects of the passage. I take notes in my Bible that I can refer to again as I read the passage and maybe do a study on my own to gain more spiritual insight as the Lord leads. I feel that we in the congregation also bear some responsibility as to how much we want to learn and grow in our walk with the Lord. My only issue is that sometimes, sermons can go on much longer than necessary and that’s when you start to lose the congregation.

  3. I enjoy sermons. But I prefer sermons that sound sermons and not like lectures, showmen speech’s, entertainment etc.
    No wonder if people cannot keep attention on a sermon, but I don’t think that it should be changed to conform these whims. The same saying that students should be more proactive and don’t let all the work with teachers and professors and abandon formal classes as whole.
    Yes, it is not only the role of the pastor to teach and so on, but sermons have its place.

  4. The research shows that sermons generally make people feel good (so your liking them isn’t surprising), but also that only about 20% of people learn and grow from them, which is surely more important. If you are one who learns and grows, then you are fortunate.
    I don’t think the criticisms are whims, but reflect how the human brain is structured so we cannot retain as much as we receive if it comes too fast and if we are not engaged and reflecting on it.

  5. But the purpose of the sermon isn’t learning as an “academic” activity. If it was the only goal, certainly sitting on biblical school or reading John Scott and Lewis for several hours would work best. One of ours pastors usually ends his sermons with “what do I take home?” – it’s nice, but I guess that the emotional part of the sermon of great importance. The pulpit has a role.

  6. Hi Jonathan, the question isn’t whether giving half hour talks has a role (of course it does e.g. if you have a visiting expert), but whether it is the best method for day in and day out discipleship. The studies suggest it isn’t the most effective way.
    I suggest the reason why it is used is (1) it’s traditional, (2) it’s easy, and (3) it gives the pastor control. Those are not good reasons. If we want to make active disciples, we should follow our master, who used parables, discussion, daily examples, on-the-job training, etc. Why follow tradition when we can follow Jesus?

  7. Yes, but the point that I don’t think that we should be so pragmatical. Actually, dictating religious activities solely on a neuroscience basis would make me very awary. There are places for parables and whatever on sermons. And out of the services we can handle all those of other activities you mention. I usually expect that sermons speak more to my heart than to my brain =)

  8. Hi Jonathan, I think this is a strange and a slightly worrying response. What is wrong with allowing neuroscience to guide what we do?
    1. There isn’t a command to preach sermons, and very few examples of it happening in the NT. So we are not talking about denying a clearly taught doctrine.
    2. There is clear teaching (1 Corinthians 14) to allow many people to participate using their gifts, which sermonising tends to preclude. So we find that the NT example and teaching of more participatory learning is supported by neuroscience and psychology (which after all are just telling us how God has made us). We don’t say we should ignore engineering when we build our church buildings, so why should we ignore neuroscience?

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