A very good friend (ironically, once a preacher!) has expressed his vision of Bible reading in terms of “zooming out.” In hermeneutical terms, this zooming out demands sensitivity to larger literary contexts. “Book-level context,” he calls it.
Today I’d like to extend this “zooming out” to the tradition of preaching in the Christian assembly. Where does preaching fit in the context of Christian gatherings?
Worship or Not Worship? Worship, which most churches would list quite high among their “purposes” in gathering, is generally not directly in view during a typical sermon. In fact, I would suggest that worship is not even included in, say, 98% of the sermons I’ve heard. It seems to me, then, that churches’ stated values and their practices are not always aligned. Put flatly: authentic worship is more important, and more effectual in the soul and mind, than the content of most sermons. Preaching, I suggest, is overused in assemblies, if not overrated.
Sermons—ostensibly the preacher’s “bread and butter” task—have in my tradition been used primarily for instruction and exhortation. To the extent this is true for you, sermons move into a category separate from worshipful praying and singing. If one views everything done by “clergy” and “laity” (forgive the employ of unbiblical terms and concepts here, but you know what I mean) as “worship,” then one’s view of sermons will be different. Even sequential liturgy, though–no matter how deep and how biblical–does not always consist entirely of worship, nor should it. For sake of discussion here, let’s assume that, no matter whether you are a “high church” or “low church” practitioner, of the things said and done in a church gathering, 1) some are worship, and 2) some are not. This is as it should be, and sermons must be recognized as part of the latter category, by and large.
Imbalanced? Instructional sermons tend to occupy an unjustifiably large proportion of time in the assembly. While this imbalance may be attributed to a sincere desire to avert creeping (landsliding?) biblical ignorance on the part of the people in the pews, one must ask whether sermons are really doing much to stem the tide. By most measures I’ve seen, and by personal observation, professing Christians are more ignorant of the content of their Bibles than we were 50 years ago.
Effective? Just as other activities in the Christian assembly—regardless of the length of time devoted to them—sermons should be effective. Perhaps sermons in your experience have in fact been largely effective. In mine, not so much. If you’re inclined to write this opinion off as mere annoyance or rebellion, please don’t. At least, not without realizing that my experience has included some very biblically centered, honest, decent, hard-working preacher-types (whose names, by the by, are Mike, Jim, Roy, Greg, Jerry, Peter, John, Chris, Terry, and Dale) … there is only one preacher I’ve ever heard on a weekly basis that I don’t respect to some significant extent, and his name is not in that list!
I would say that my experience of sermons has probably been a 5 on the scholarly scale of 1-10 (whereas your basic Presbyterian sermon diet might have been a 6), and my intake has been more like an 8 on the biblically faithful scale. It is neither a lack of scholarliness nor a lack of faithful respect for scripture that I decry. No, it is the sermon mode, the method that’s lacking. I don’t feeling like counting the sermons I’ve heard, but the number of seriously effective ones is appallingly low.
~ ~ ~
As we are able, while standing on our most stable tripods, let us hit the zoom-out buttons on our individual camcorders. Let us not be so focused-in on the tradition of preaching that we forget that it is largely, well … a tradition. Let us see clearly, in broader perspective, what the Christian assembly can be. That potential is not nearly as dependent on sermons as we might think.
To be continued . . .