Negative effects of good words

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, pagan xianitywas 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

Addendum 7/19/15:

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:

13 thoughts on “Negative effects of good words

  1. John Eoff 07/24/2015 / 9:23 am

    Brian, The sermon (and praise team) are not the problem, just symptoms of the problem. The problem lies in the usurping of authority by those who constitute religious institutions, namely churches. Being human, like we are, it is just too big a temptation to want to control things and that extends to God out called ones. His failure to create entities over which humans can exercise control has been remedied by man’s own constitutions. We can’t control something that does not exist (such as an institution—-read “church”) so everybody who desires to control God’s children creates his own church and establishes the rules, membership requirements, etc.. No church is anything other than a business entity which has been established by humans and is totally controlled by humans.


    • Brian Casey 07/24/2015 / 10:13 am

      John, your expressed view here seems to be a bird’s-eye one. Appropriately so, really. I don’t share the absolutist part of it, i.e., that any “church” is a bad thing, *only* a business, through and through. I have seen glimpses (in Alfred, NY; in Jeff City, MO; in my own living room; on a few isolated occasions here & there) that true, helpful Christian community can be a reality and “gatherings” can play the role in Christian living that I think God intended them to be. But I’d have to agree that most “churches” are way too institutionalized, and way too humanly controlled, for them to have much impact. The major problem, as you’ve said, is humans. But sermons are really a stupid method to depend on as a staple food, given the rest of the status quo! 🙂


  2. John Eoff 07/24/2015 / 1:26 pm

    Brian, I have nothing against believers assembling any time, in any special group. It is the organizing into separate entities that is anti scriptural. Human organizations are divisive by nature. The only reason they exist is to identify certain believers as members of the particular business entity. The way is not composed of separate entities other than individuals. God’s plan is not improved by men’s innovations.


    • Brian Casey 07/24/2015 / 4:01 pm

      I’d have to agree, John — organizing into entities cements the division that is likely, if not definitely, harmful. And God’s plan is certainly to be pursued. I don’t know what the next step is sometimes, but I’m still thinking and wondering with you and others.


  3. Anne Boyd 07/24/2015 / 2:35 pm

    Well thought out comments. My husband “made his living” for 20 years as a full time employee of Church of Christ congregations. He did much more than deliver sermons. BTW, his sermons stirred hearts to positive action, BUT he led more people to Christ through what he called “Friendship Evangelism,” than he ever did with a sermon. The term “living” is used here loosely. The first 12 years, we barely could manage on the sparse pay he received. I chose not to be a career woman in business. Instead, I enjoyed being a homemaker and working beside my husband – (I was thrown in for free. I guess my hours were not worthy of any kind of compensation because…hmmm, I wonder what rationale dictated that??? If I had accepted a position as Private Secretary for a business leader – a position for which I was trained and had experience in – I would have made as much or more than my husband.) Oh, well, life is not fair, so, Anne, “get over it!” 😉

    Back to the subject at hand…recent research discovered that one week after hearing a 10 minute speech, participants could only remember 10% of the speech at best. Some could only remember a significant example. I wonder how many pulpit men have taken training in writing and presenting a sermon??? NO COMMENT! Moving on…if only 10% is remembered just 1 week later, do church leaders care? If so, what will it take to make the hour or hour and a-half more helpful in drawing us closer to God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. We “speak where the Bible speaks, and are silent where the Bible is silent.” I believe there are enough scriptures that instruct us to use our words, time, thoughts wisely.

    I must say, however, that there are some truly gifted communicators who love the Lord, know and love the Word, and deliver messages in a way that gives us something to help us walk closer with the Lord while sowing seeds for The Master. A suggestion — if a congregation cannot find a man to “fill the pulpit” effectively, or IF elders want their members to grow deeper sooner, would small group studies be more helpful than a monologue from the pulpit? Of course, we already know that people who prefer attending to “punch the clock, do their duty,” those folks are not too interested in walking with Jesus…won’t attend a small group discussion. I guess they get their 2 seconds before God to explain their lack of interest. ~~ Anne, Missionary to Transylvanians, distributing 125,000+ Bibles this year in the local languages in Romania and many Hungarian speaking communities around the world…Volunteer, CEO, God’s


  4. Anne Boyd 07/24/2015 / 2:56 pm

    P.S. HOW MUCH OF YOUR PRESENTATION WILL THEY REMEMBER? at has a short message worthy of study…if one wishes to present a lesson that actually has a positive effect. ~~ Anne


  5. Brian Casey 07/25/2015 / 6:04 pm

    Anne, your reminiscences and reflections are of good value. I wonder whether you see a decreasing value in “sermons” now, as compared to when Dan was preaching regularly a few decades ago. It seems to me that the average (western) human attention span, and other factors, lead to far less effectiveness in sermons these days than in the 60s or 70s. But I suspect that true, relationship-based sharing of Jesus’ messages has always been more effective, save for a few unusually gifted mass-communicators such as Jesus himself.

    Yes, I certainly track with you about small groups. They, too, need wise direction/guidance. They can easily become nothing more than foodfests and ignorance-sharing sessions if not well conceived.

    Bibles in local languages! Yes!!


  6. Steve 08/03/2015 / 12:45 pm

    “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.”

    Brian–I’m not sure how the author (or you) define ‘the contemporary sermon’ as compared to a ‘non-contemporary sermon,’ but I was just thinking that depending on how one understood what preaching was/is at all, perhaps Mr. Viola’s comment is a bit of an overstatement….”can’t be found in…”

    Judaism–Ezra 6:14? (including a raised stage, if not a pulpit! Neh 8:4)
    Jesus–Mark 1:39?
    Primitive Church–Acts 15:35? et al

    I would find none of the above referenced “4 harms” resulting in any of the scriptures I’ve referenced–and would hope that since preaching is in some way a specifically stated mode of sharing God’s World with peoples (believers and non-believers alike–Lk 24:47; 1 Cor 1:17, 21; 2 Tim 4:2), that at least some of our contemporary preaching would be…well, “un-harmful” at worst, and quite beneficial in various ways at best.

    Admittedly I’ve heard some “harmful” contemporary ‘preaching,’ and I have not read Mr. Viola’s book–so this is just an immediate reaction to your post.



    • Brian Casey 08/05/2015 / 5:31 pm

      Steve, sorry it’s been a while. Much going on in several aspects of life. I appreciate your raising a question here and think the “rub” is in the definition of “contemporary sermon.” I (not necessarily Viola) would say that it’s too much a package, too much an expectation in 99.75% of churches, and too much a topical/opinion pursuit instead of a strongly textually based pursuit. It’s certainly not that there aren’t “un-harmful” sermons being preached. [Revision of this last sentence: There are un-harmful sermons being preached.]

      More to Viola’s point, I think, is that The Sermon (as he defines it, and as I understand it) 1) is not a Christian institution in itself, and 2) is rather unhelpful as an “equipping” tool in this era. I’d go further and say it was less unhelpful 🙂 about 50 years ago.

      For me (and again, not necessarily Viola), the concepts of good, effective, public teaching and The Sermon overlap but are not really very similar. Maybe that helps? 🙂


  7. Steve 08/06/2015 / 9:46 am

    Thanks–good clarification. I might add as perhaps a good comparison (between yester-year’s sermons and today’s sermons) the difference between (pick any of them, especially NBC/ABC) the morning ‘news’ shows, from then and now. What was then 80% news and 20% pop culture has now reversed and become 20% news and 80% pop culture. I think that is often reflected in what is presented as a sermon today–and there are exceptions (fortunately).


    • Brian Casey 08/06/2015 / 11:27 am

      If my clarification was helpful, your illustration is even more so. 🙂


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