An introductory word: I have a couple of dear, trusted friends who are making, or have made, a living in “preacher” roles. Each of them is honest and thoughtful enough to realize there are serious issues with the role. In addition, I’ve respected other men’s sermonic offerings from time to time; plus, I rarely write off a potential new friend simply because he makes his living doing the preacher (a/k/a pastor) thing. A couple of guys with whom I’ve become solidly acquainted through internet-based groups are as sincere as servants come, considering their hearts and their work with local churches and with the broader Body. That there are good men preaching relatively high-quality sermons in the world is a given. However (read on). . . .
Pagan Christianity? (2002, 2008, 2012), a book with a title clearly designed to shock the eye, was written primarily by Frank Viola and also by George Barna, of religion survey fame. The book systematically examines a series of routines inculcated in most churches, pointing out the pagan origins of many of the practices—and tacitly challenging the thoughtful, courageous reader to do something about the existing dissonance.
Reading this entire book has never been a goal of mine. In fact, it rankles me enough to page through a chapter—not because I get mad at the authors, but because they are way too on target, and I get righteously indignant at the status quo—that I have intentionally skimmed, reading only selectively.
Rather than bringing forward Viola’s worthwhile research on the origins of the sermon, I’d like to share a few points he made in the fourth chapter on “How Sermonizing Harms the Church.” In other words, this is not about the non-Christian beginnings of the method/genre but about the present-day effects. The larger, italicized wordings below are abridged, but all of them are Viola’s:
1. The sermon makes the preacher the virtuoso performer of the regular church gathering. As a result, congregational participation is hampered at best and precluded at worst.
2. The sermon often stalemates spiritual growth. Because it is a one-way affair, it encourages passivity.
3. The sermon preserves the unbiblical clergy mentality. It creates an excessive and pathological dependence on the clergy. The sermon makes the preacher the religious specialist—the only one having anything worthy to say.
4. Rather than equipping the saints, the sermon de-skills them. It matters not how loudly ministers drone on about “equipping the saints for the work of the ministry,” the truth is that the contemporary sermon preached every week has little power to equip God’s people for spiritual service and functioning.
Much of the above could be applied to worship leaders and so-called praise teams, as well. Now, twenty years ago, I would have been very surprised if you foretold that I’d end up writing that last sentence. After having lived in five more regions, and after having visited probably 50-75 more churches, though, I now find it a truism: the customary appearance of any “virtuoso performers” in the assembly tends to neutralize and hush the pew-packers, as opposed to energizing them. Something in me still thinks that a well-conceived, wisely used praise team can be a good tool to enhance congregational worship; I myself have been stirred to worship through the visual and sonic leadership of praise teams. It simply has not been my observation or experience that praise teams have an overall positive effect in churches over the long haul.
As if to answer an anticipcated objection, Viola follows the above section by affirming that preaching and teaching the Word of God are obviously “scriptural,” but that . . .
The contemporary pulpit sermon is not the equivalent of the preaching and teaching that is found in the scriptures. It cannot be found in the Judaism of the Old Testament, the ministry of Jesus, or the life of the primitive church.
B. Casey, 6/28-7/11/15
I reviewed this post one last time before its scheduled publishing in a few days, and I found its title ironic. If certain people (who are at this time deeply troubling my soul) were to see this post’s title, it would naturally lead them to think it was referring to something else, but the relationship of the two matters is happenstance.
It is a shame when words intended for good—even those that may contain something amiss—are taken for bad and are used to further ill will among people. If Frank Viola’s and my words about preachers’ words end up being taken as spreading ill will about people, they will have been taken poorly and incorrectly. The sharing of the Viola thoughts above is a word against a practice and a habit, not against any person or class of people.
Good words and good people are what they are.
Next in this series:
“Negative effects of positive #s”
“Affirming positives from Viola”
For more on the preacher’s/pastor’s role: