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Problems and Limitations of the Traditional ‘Sermon’ Conce

To question the “sermon” concept should not be equated with the mistaken notion that we do not need teaching or teachers within our churches. There are, however, some inherent problems and limitations with the traditional “sermon” idea. The following is a brief examination of...

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Problems and Limitations of the Traditional ‘Sermon’ Concept: Part II

Posted by Radical Resurgence | Posted in Uncategorized | Posted on 11-06-2012


7. In order to better facilitate learning within our churches, pastors should begin to implement a Q&A period after the sermon on what was just taught. What would be wrong in allowing a stimulating time for questions, comments, or even disagreements?

What better way could there be in helping people to learn and remember what the pastor had so earnestly labored to teach? If we really want to see the saints equipped for ministry (Ephesians 4:12) and to present every person complete in Christ (Colossians 1:28), why would we ignore or even reject such an effective and biblical means of communication? Do we truly believe that the Sunday morning sermon is to be a learning experience?

The important point is that the Bible example indicates the need for two-way communication in those instances when we expect comprehension, acceptance, and commitment to take place. We also know that there is a steady increase of accuracy as feedback is increased. Therefore, for one to establish comprehensive and complete communication, for one to discover and transmit the truths of Scripture and the content of the Christian Gospel, monologue is not enough. A two-way flow of communication is essential (William Barlow, “Communicating the Gospel,” Searching Together [Vol. 21:1-4, 1993] p.57).

Unfortunately, many pastors will not allow it because they are threatened or intimidated by any form of return dialogue within a public setting. At least five reasons can account for this: (1) Return dialogue is offensive to the man who sees himself and his opinions as above the right of anyone to question, particularly when coming from mere “laymen”; (2) Return dialogue may expose the speaker to the possibility of embarrassing questions that he may not be able to answer. It may reveal that his studies and preparation were shallow.

It may reveal that he is not necessarily the Bible “authority” that he parades as; (3) Return dialogue removes the spotlight from one man and brings others into its realm, which can be very disconcerting to the man who has an ego to feed; (4) Return dialogue is offensive to the man who wants his congregation to be dependent upon him for all the “answers.”

If people are allowed to voice their disagreements or perhaps even articulate an answer better than he can, it tends to remove their dependence upon his wisdom for understanding the text of Scripture; (5) Allowing a Q&A period after the sermon poses structural or organizational problems for church leaders who have set their “order of worship” in concrete, allowing exact time limits for everything with no flexibility or spontaneity within the corporate meeting.

8. The monologue sermon format, by its very structure, fails to fully challenge people and allows them to get their religious “fix” without any meaningful contribution.

Meanwhile, the person in the pew has a satisfaction provided by the very process of sitting through the sermon no matter what is said from the pulpit and may explain why many people continue to attend church even when they are not listening to the pastor’s message.

They may be experiencing an unconscious sense of atoning for their misdeeds simply by going through the motions of sitting quietly and appearing to listen. This leaves a man free to continue living as before, unchallenged, uncommitted, and unchanged, while feeling whole and clean or forgiven, structuring his life so as to keep God out – or at a distance (Barlow, “Communicating the Gospel,” p.56).

9. The traditional sermon format helps to keep the saints in an infantile state and fosters an unhealthy dependence upon the preacher. It’s not that people can’t learn from a monologue sermon, but only that they do not learn as effectively when never afforded the opportunity to ask questions or make relevant comments.

The very structure of the sermon is a dependence structure in which the “children” sit at the father’s feet while he does all the talking, as they are encouraged to learn, not to evaluate. Any talk by him of “my church,” “my ministry,” “my people” actually indicates a spirit of domination, not service. Regrettably, the “children” do not mature in the process, but are expected to return next week for a repeat experience (Barlow, “Communicating the Gospel,” p.57).

10. A major means of combating the anti-intellectualism within today’s church, including the weak and imprecise theology which many preachers are guilty of articulating, is through the use of Q&A and verbal feedback.

11. Reading through the apostolic fathers (e.g., Polycarp, Ignatius, Clement, Eusebius, et al.), one notices the conspicuous absence of a “sermon” when discussing ecclesiastical matters. In his survey of the early church fathers, Craig A. Evans has noticed this very point:

Although many things are mentioned, including submission to the elders, there is no exhortation to pay close attention to the sermons or other ‘preaching’ within the context of the assembled group. This is an argument from silence to be sure, but it is worth noting nevertheless that there is no mention of preaching pastors and listening congregations. In summary of the evidence of the apostolic fathers it can be said that such concepts as ‘preacher’ and ‘preaching’ are only in contexts of Gospel proclamation to unbelievers.

When it comes to the activity within the church, however, fellowship, teaching, admonition and social care are emphasized. Nowhere do we find a discussion of the pastor preaching to the congregation on a regular basis.

From this we should not conclude that it never happened (for on special occasions it was required, as noted above) but that it was simply not the customary practice. Rather than one man preaching to an audience the church of the apostolic fathers experienced active involvement of the membership. This is a proper reflection of the picture we have in the New Testament itself . . . The common practice today of the clergyman preaching a sermon to a passive audience seems to have its origin in tradition (and/or expedience) rather than in a Scriptural pattern (“‘Preacher’ and ‘Preaching’:  Some Lexical Observations,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society [December – 1981, Vol.24/No.4] pp.320-321).

12. The traditional monologue sermon, in most cases, does not go far enough. It is information-oriented, but that’s all. If the pastor has been trained in most evangelical schools, he will continue to give great “chalk talks.” He will inspire the spirit, warm the heart, fill the mind, but the team will never leave the huddle . . . How long would a football coach last if his team never left the huddle? Many pastors do nothing more than give “chalk talks,” and people think they are doing their jobs. The American church is so easily duped that the pastor/teller has become the most highly esteemed member of the religious establishment. He tells people what and why, but that is where it stops.

Those who think of themselves as pastor/teachers normally consider their main task giving “chalk talks.” Others revere them as great speakers; many become evangelical luminaries; yet I submit they are not pastor/teachers; they are pastor/tellers. Pastor/tellers do not prepare God’s people for works of service; they talk to people about works of service, but they do not fulfill their God-given responsibility. Please do not misinterpret my words. I believe that effective telling of God’ people is a first and crucial step to their preparation. I work hard at communicating the Word of God to the congregation. But if I stop at telling, I am not teaching . . . The most common myth is that effective preaching leads to effective ministry.

Effective preaching is a good start to the process, but falls far short of effective ministry. Over 90 percent of pastors must face the reality that preaching is not enough . . . Many pastors will agree that preaching is not enough, but they do not consider it their responsibility to fill in the gaps. They have been thoroughly schooled in the erroneous belief that their main role is to preach. This false notion is a clear example of reading cultural trends into Scripture . . . Telling people what to do without providing the means to do it is cruel and defrauding. It creates spiritual schizophrenia, Christians who are experts on what they are not experiencing.

Not only does it leave people unprepared for ministry, they become guilty and frustrated with the Christian life. This also gives the Devil a choice opportunity to create problems inside the church. When an army never goes to war, it by necessity focuses on shining boots, making beds, and marching in a straight line. The church that does not move to action by necessity must focus on Roberts Rules of Order, committee rules, and acquisition of pulpit furniture. The pastor as teacher is the pastor as coach. Teaching means more than telling people what and telling them why. It progresses to showing them how, doing it with them, letting them do it, and deploying them into the harvest field (Bill Hull, The Disciple Making Pastor [Grand Rapids: Fleming H. Revell, 1988] pp.94-96).

One who does not have to undertake responsibility in life will not develop mentally or morally. His character will remain undisciplined and his intelligence fallow. Similarly, the exercise of responsibility in spiritual ministry is necessary to the development of spiritual character and intelligence.

These cannot be acquired by listening to sermons. As Carlyle aptly says, “To sit as a passive bucket and be pumped into, can be exhilarating to no creature, how eloquent soever be the flood of utterance that is descending.” Teaching alone will not produce Christians fully developed in understanding and efficient in service. Theory without practice and experience would never make a physician or an engineer or a farmer . . .The instructor may be a brilliant and conscientious man, but the pupil must always learn to apply the instruction by practice . . . Much of the textual sermonizing that is done today accomplishes little that is permanent.

Its affect is transient; it is but a momentary stimulant. Congregations that have sat under such preaching for ten and twenty years are today still spiritual babes, both in knowledge and experience. That type of preaching will never prepare a group of converts to be left to carry on their own work (Alexander R. Hay, The New Testament Order for Church and Missionary [Published by The New Testament Missionary Union, 1947] pp.292-293,414).

by Darryl Erkel

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