Protestant church services have taken a familiar form since before any of us were born. But the coronavirus pandemic seems to be changing all that – for some churches at least.
Could this be a time when sermons are replaced by something better?
Why sermons fail
I’ve long been a critic of the western Protestant church’s reliance on sermons as a means of teaching and discipling. (My page on why sermons are a poor choice has had over 7400 views since 2011.)
Numerous studies have been done of how our brains process information, and it turns out that lectures and sermons don’t fit the brains we have.
- After 10-15 minutes of information, short term memory is likely to be overloaded, and very little more of what we hear is processed or remembered.
- Listening to a sermon is a passive activity, and our brains retain ideas best when we are actively involved in learning.
- As a result, most people don’t remember sermons so they don’t learn much and they don’t change much. Their main benefit is that people feel good after a good sermon.
- These days the internet provides many ways to learn and grow, and most people don’t really need to listen to a minister in church to get what they need.
Better ways to make disciples
There are many better ways to teach and encourage via active learning and transformational teaching:
- Keep it short (10-15 minutes max).
- Use voice and visuals.
- Have discussion times before, during and/or afterwards.
- Get listeners to teach each other or put something into practice immediately.
- Most important: use other methods of teaching and discipling such as:
- self learning via research
- one-on-one and mentoring
- Break things up, use different learning and practice approaches (a “magazine format”).
- Leave some loose ends for people to follow up themselves.
This doesn’t mean that we should NEVER have sermons. Sometimes (e.g. when there is a visiting expert or a specially important topic) then a monologue talk may be the most suitable option.
There seems to be a lot of resistance to making changes, for both good and not so good reasons:
- It is just easier to prepare one talk for 200 people than to use other methods, even if those other methods are better.
- Sermons are what ministers have been taught to do, and change would be a challenge.
- Some churches want to control what the congregation learns, and sermonising achieves this.
- Some ministers enjoy being up front. Have you noticed how many younger ministers and leaders seem to like posting photos of themselves preaching?
- Congregations often expect a sermon and wouldn’t appreciate something different. Sometimes this may be because they would prefer to be consumers than active participants.
Signs of change?
But change has been forced upon us by the coronavirus and the need to slow the spread of this disease. Most churches have gone online, with varying degrees of success.
I have checked out a number of online church services. Some churches have tried to copy their “normal” services as closely as possible. But others have adapted more.
- Sermons filmed outside, “on location”, perhaps somewhere that has some relevance to the topic. This allows filming from different camera angles (including using a drone) and allows breaks while the camera dwells for a moment on the scenery or something happening nearby – a good opportunity for the short term memory to process information.
- Shorter talks, because it is easier for people to switch off an online sermon than walk out of “normal” church.
- Shorter talks mixed with testimonies, reports of ministry activities and dialogue – again helping people to focus.
- Many churches have begun or ramped up community welfare in this time, and that has given opportunity in the service for leaders in this ministry to share what they are doing. Again, keeps things moving and not getting boring.
But will it end when (if?) Covid is eliminated?
Churches may find that, having become comfortable with meetings via Zoom, many people may not want to go back to passively listening to monogue sermons.
Mike Frost has observed (Will the 10 minute homily be the new normal?) that ministers have shortened their online sermons, and that congregations have enjoyed the brevity. He says:
Perhaps COVID-19 will be the unwanted and unpleasant catalyst that will force Protestant churches to reshape our methods of teaching, as well as our liturgies, to align more with what we know about the ways people like to learn.
Having set up strong social welfare ministries and become much more aware of needs in the community, many churches are likely to continue these ministries and stay more involved with the community around them. This will likely change the way they run their services.
I know of several churches that are praying that God will lead them into new ways after they return from lockdown.
- One is planning to meet in their building every second week. On the other week, people will meet in homes, watch some sort of video from the church and then spend time together as a christian community.
- Another church, which currently rents the building they meet in, will stop renting and for a time at least, only have online services plus home “churches”.
- Others will continue with both face-to-face and online services, which suggests some of the current innovations will remain.
Many people have had the opportunity to look at other churches online. Churches that won’t change, and continue with long (often boring) monologue sermons and cookie cutter services may find that people will look elsewhere.
Not all churches need to change for the new environment. Small missional communities meeting in public places, set up before the pandemic, have met online and attracted interest from people not wanting to be part of a more traditional church. They will continue in the same way when they come out of lockdown, but with new members.
Perhaps the long monologue sermon is on its way out in many churches. I can only hope.