Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Sunday Sermon--Resilient as...

As part of the reformation, there was a significant amount of energy spent in denouncing some man made religious practices that were contrary to Biblical teachings, the most abhorrent being the selling of indulgences: for the right price any sin could be forgiven. The other was the veneration of idols in the image of saints. Those who chose to dismantle those forms of religious gobbledy gook were called iconoclasts and often pointed to the idea of “Sola Scriptura”, ie. the Bible alone should be our only means of determining our beliefs and practices.

Tucked neatly away from the onslaught of dismantling “traditions of man” was the highly valued Sunday sermon. After all, it is rather difficult to denounce the Sunday sermon, by using a sermon to do so. To be fair, there weren't a heck of a lot of options for people to have a chance to hear someone's interpretation of the word. It was virtually impossible for them to read the word as it was so closely guarded by the religious elite. The fear of course was that if people actually knew what was in the word their power base would disappear.

The challenge today is that sermons are not inherently evil and from time to time do serve a purpose. What isn't necessarily useful is creating a religious dependence, especially to the Sunday sermon, that lends itself so easily to becoming an idol in our lives: both for the hearer and the preacher. Add to that, the very real possibility of it being an obstacle to having a meaningful discussion with a non-believer or ex-church goer and it might not even be a kingdom principle. Yikes!!!

Of all Christian practices the Sunday sermon has been placed in a unique position. It is something that is almost always “sold” with no one questioning this practice. Rarely would a person “preach” and not get a salary or an honorarium for doing so. The term honorarium might even have its roots in the religious interpretation of 1 Timothy 5:17 "The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching." It would have been difficult to gather enough people around him to make a living since there were no church buildings and groups were limited in size to what a house could handle. I doubt if 10-20 people would have thought it was their responsibility to pay for an elder to teach them. (NB: If double honor meant money, I am not aware of any church models that pay ALL of their elders.)

One could volunteer in a myriad of volunteer positions and not expect to receive any monetary compensation. You could literally give 10+ hours a week looking after youth programs, bus ministry, worship leading, teaching Sunday school, caring in the nursery, working on the streets with the homeless, ushering, cell group leader, etc., etc., and not expect or even want payment. You might even be insulted if payment was offered. After all these things are meant to be a gift in appreciation for the gift that Yeshua has so lovingly given.

But when it comes to the value that we place on sermons, and even more pointedly the Sunday sermon, “where our treasure is…”, comes to mind. Buildings are literally built with the express purpose of honoring the place of the sermon. The Bible itself does not even have that much honor given to it. Sure Jesus said some great things but without His words being spoken on Sunday morning, what value do they actually have? Some people can go all week without thinking twice about something Yeshua said, but miss Sunday, only when hell freezes over.

Literally, billions of dollars have been given to the prominence of the Sunday sermon. Just think, sermons are preached every week in places of comfort and even grand design, with the full knowledge by both listeners and preacher that a child dies every 5 seconds of hunger/malnutrition. Ironically, the sermon could even be about caring for widows and orphans.

Most people have not stopped to consider that a sermon is simply a lecture: a method of communicating some information. In that sense, it is no different than a book, an article in a newspaper, a news report on radio, tv or the internet or a recording of some kind. We are comfortable with the medium because our school system taught us to be good listeners. And for those that didn’t like the lecture method in schools, well it’s only an hour each week, and isn’t our Lord worth at least that much of a sacrifice?

What is actually quite odd about this particular methodology is how ineffective it actually is in terms of effectively teaching something. According to David Sousa, How the Brain Learns (2006), determined what we retain after 24 hours of a teaching episode. The findings:

5% of lecture
10% of what we read
20% of what we hear
30% of what we see
50% of what we both see and hear
70% of what we discuss with others
80% of what we experience personally
95% of what we teach to someone else

The book of Hebrews would seem to indicate that all Christians should attain a level of maturity that comes through teaching and not just being listeners. “In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God's word all over again.” Hebrews 5:12 Without any scientific study it seems that it was well known 2,000 years ago that maturity came by being the teacher.

But since the methodology of preaching sermons is so highly regarded as THE “best” way of teaching and this method doesn’t lend itself to the “many” becoming teachers, we end up with preachers who truly know a lot, (teaching really is a fantastic way to learn something) constantly taking centre stage. The result of course is that everyone else feels inadequate to teach and thus ends up simply quoting the preacher. If they want someone to know something the preferred methodology is to take that person to hear a sermon. It doesn’t even matter if the sermon is not pertinent to the individual’s circumstances. That’s the best that could be hoped for. Why take on the responsibility of being accountable for what you taught? It goes without saying that no one can do it as well as the professional preacher. Practice does work.

What is even more remarkable is that we have no Biblical records of the type of preaching that is prevalent today. There’s an Old Testament law that is very insightful as to what needs to be emphasized in the lives of God’s people.
"Then Moses commanded them: "At the end of every seven years, in the year for canceling debts, during the Feast of Tabernacles, when all Israel comes to appear before the LORD your God at the place he will choose, you shall read this law before them in their hearing." Deut. 31:11

It would seem the value wasn’t placed on the hearing of the Law, although that was required to make sure the priests didn't run amuk but rather the value was on putting into practice what was heard. Ironically, even this value got twisted by the Pharisees who put more value on their interpretations than on the actual scriptures. Sound familiar?

Yeshua's longest recorded teaching is the sermon on the mount, Matthew 5-7 (15 minutes) and typically he spoke from 1-5 minutes in real life settings, homes, on the street, etc. (And yes, He did teach from a boat to a crowd on the shore). He often didn't even use scripture but rather told stories and parables. If preachers did that today, they would get fired in a heartbeat. And a lot of His teaching was to correct the faulty interpretations that had been forced on the people. It’s ironic that preachers manage to take a one-minute story from Yeshua like the prodigal son and turn it into a 30-45 minute sermon in order to emphasize their interpretation. And they never even realize that the setting that these stories were spoken in were as important to the message as the story itself.

The challenge with the acceptance of the Sunday sermon as a core religious activity is that it tends to produce passive listeners who are like lambs to the slaughter. There is little/no allowance for discussion and to openly disagree is seen as insidious rebellion. At that point the sermon is no longer in the category of a method but is now an icon with all of the appropriate worship that icons deserve. I mean, I know couples that could have a rip snortin "discussion" on the way to the Sunday sermon, smile beatifically during the sermon, and carry on with the "discussion" when they got back in their car. Maybe not you, but been there, done that. I know families that have been ripped apart over allegiance to the Sunday sermon. If that ain't idolatry, I don't know what is.

When the printing press was invented it was thought by some that the gap between the laity and clergy would have been obliterated, for everyone would be able to read the Word for themselves and have no need of someone teaching them. The resiliency of the Sunday sermon has managed quite nicely to repel that naïve thinking, with dusty Bibles paying hommage to its power.

Today, there is a new battle brewing over the widely accepted need for the Sunday sermon. It actually started a number of years ago with television preachers. They were relegated to Sunday morning shutins, but the VCR managed to make them available anytime. And the need is growing less and less through the wonder of the internet: podcasts, live streaming, facebook, blogs and free downloads of the best preaching of the past century. They can even choose a topic that is of personal interest to them. Hmmm, that would be a novel idea. People are no longer trapped in isolation and can no longer be so easily manipulated about its value. Well, some people anyways.

However, it does have something going for it that the average method doesn’t and this cannot be easily dismissed: religion has managed to deceive people for millennia and it is rare, if not impossible for the emperor’s new clothes to be exposed within the confines of any religious system. There are some very wonderful men and women of God that have dedicated their lives to its ongoing welfare. For without it, it will be difficult to get people to follow their vision and people will be hard pressed to pay for their services without the weekly reminder of how necessary they are. They do the work of listening to the Holy Spirit, they don't want to burden everyone with that particular chore. It really is difficult to get someone to understand something when their job depends on not understanding it.

Has the Sunday sermon produced some good things? Sure. Has it produced some hearers and not doers of the word? Sure. A bible in a hotel room has produced some good things as well. People are funny in that they will give the Sunday sermon credit for producing the good things but will blame the listeners or even the preacher if something bad is produced. What's even crazier is that the listeners often show up looking for answers to specific questions and no sermon can possibly satisfy every question at one time. Perhaps that's what keeps people coming back, maybe in a year their question will be answered.

Thank goodness their personal history will not alter the intent of the preacher's interpretation and cause some silent misunderstanding to take place. Thankfully, they nor the preacher would even know that miscommunication had actually happened. There is no need for messy dialogue and clarification in order to enjoy the sermon. You know the stuff that makes relationships happen. What an incredible time saver.

Are there any scriptural precedents for the centrality and iconic value of the Sunday sermon. NO! None, 0, nada. If we were to try to answer the question of "why" do we need a Sunday sermon, even the famed and oft quoted "forsake not the assembling of yourselves together" is not referring to the Sunday sermon. When asked what does the previous verse say, people usually glaze over even though it is this verse that gives the reason for getting together. "And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds." Heb. 10:24

Could a church group survive without the Sunday sermon? My guess is that the group would not consider the question. Their identity is as wrapped up in the ritual as they are in Yeshua. And perhaps even Yeshua would take second place.

The one thing that the Sunday sermon is very good at is getting people to come back to listen to another one next week. This is in spite of the fact that they usually can’t remember past Sunday dinner what had been spoken that morning. Talk about resilient. This thing will give a cockroach a run for its money.


Robin Cecile said...

Better Duck!

David Grant said...

I'm simply saying I stole it from you.

Robin Cecile said...

Touché LOL

brack said...

Did you just give a sermon in writing? :)

I don't know you, but I already love your heart. The modern church system is one created by man, and said by man to be inspired by God. How many other systems are said to be inspired by God?

I will be checking in often. Thanks for your insite.

David Grant said...

Thanks for the response. I blogged my way through my angst and questions for the past couple of years. Didn't win any popularity contests in doing so.

There's a lot of guys having some pretty stimulation discussions about the nature of church, about how we are to interact with each and for me most significantly how do we allow Yeshua into our relationships at our more human but not religious way.

If you haven't been to this site you might enjoy it. The godjourney podcasts are pretty fun and there's even a sermon or 2 posted there.

I'll get over to your site soon enough to see what kind of craziness you're into.

brack said...

I simply appreciate how you don't just ingest the church. You seem willing to question everything about it. And I can feel comfortable that you have "the church's" best interest in mind by pointing them to the One who loves us the most.

thanks for the link david.

I would appreciate your visit to my site, its going to be quite ecclectic.