A debate occurred on a Facebook group to which I belong. It was typical of the group—we’re a bunch of ministers (mostly United Church). One of our members posted that she did not think the sermon was an important part of worship anymore and was thinking about replacing it with a mixture of plenary chats, video clips, art installations and the like.
The debate was interesting because, generally speaking, for the past 25 years there has been a movement in clergy circles that suggests the death of the sermon. The person who posted in our group was just following along with the current trends. The same research also suggests that having music that sneakily sounds like U2 or Coldplay is “where it’s at!” (If you want your church to look like a Baby-boomer concert … that is.)
So some of us, who were a part of the group Facebook debate, have been asking around: Is the sermon important?
We’ve been asking our spouses, our colleagues, our theological professors and, most importantly, the people who listen to sermons—you.
The results are predictable to old cynics like me (cynic [definition]: From the Greek kunea, where we get “canine,” a barking dog). The anecdotal evidence is overwhelming that most people who attend Protestant churches want sermons. In fact, most of those who responded to our recent informal survey said that it might be the most important part of the service for them. Other factors were music and companionship. But the sermon is king (or queen).
I would just like that to percolate: “The sermon is why I go to church.”
Now you have to understand that for some Christians getting the bread and wine (communion) is why they go to church; or, being “born again” is why they go to church.
But again, sitting still, and listening to another person talk for 10 - 20 minutes is the crown of worship. In most cases it’s low tech and often provided by someone who has not had the time she/he has wanted to prepare (because of funerals, meetings, etc.). It can be boring, or irrelevant or too political or bizarre. But, week after week, we continue to sit in uncomfortable seats and hear a lecture.
And other research suggests that sermons, which for the past 20 or so years have been getting shorter, are now inexplicably getting longer. From a 12-minute maximum to some pastors preaching for 45 minutes. Incredible, given that I was told that the average North American adult can only concentrate on one thing for about 10 minutes—that’s the length of an adult attention span these days.
There are a lot of theories as to why this is happening (i.e., why we think sermons are important), and some of them actually make sense.
I have my own pet theory: We like humans. Yep. It’s like the debate about the difference between an LP and a MP3. Even with all the scratches and pops, there is something “warm” about listening to Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” on vinyl compared to an MP3. It has to do with compression, and how we lose a lot of unheard “stuff” when we digitize sound. Songs are still technically the same in either format but something is still missing from the digital version. And compared to Van Morrison live, well, nothing can compare to that experience.
We don’t sit around tables for meals with multiple generations very much anymore. We don’t hear the same stories told over and over again by our grandma and grandpa. We in Canada (and elsewhere) are losing much of what it has meant to be human over the past 100,000 years. Church still has that (for the most part), particularly small (and rural) congregations.
I am not the greatest preacher, eva! I know that. It hurts; but I know that.
But what I have going for me is that you are there to listen. And think. And pray. And ruminate. And talk. And live. And within the next week or so, you’ll see me again: at church, or Tim Hortons, or at the rink. And we’ll talk about the weather, and sports, and family, and health, and religion.
And all that stuff goes into the sermon, for the preacher and the “preachee." And when you figure that God has a major part to play in this experience—as the silent partner—well, of course it makes sense that sermons are important.
So, take the advice of a banner that used to hang from the wall of the church in which I grew up. It was scarlet red and featured a fabric representation of the Bible, a hand holding a pencil on top of a notebook and the words:
“When we Listen, God Speaks”