The sermon is a great tool for imparting and receiving wisdom and for many folk – Sunday Christians we call them – it’s the only way. But what about those reluctant Sunday Christians, especially men, who resent being asked to dress respectfully, enter a strange building, be nice to everyone, don’t swear, smoke or spit and then sit down in silence and listen to someone drone on for up to an hour without interruption? Is this how things are done in the real world in the 21st Century? Is this how we get our daily news, or our workplace instructions? Even school classrooms are temples of interactivity these days. But Christians or seekers are dragged along to hear a lecture.
Of course it works for some, don’t knock it. But the sermon in its current form (apart from the Powerpoint stuff) was invented by 17th Century Puritans and a population brought up on the 30 second advert and the Simpsons do not have the attention span of a 17th Century Puritan! And I’m not embarrassed to admit that I include myself in that number! If you think about it, the sermon is quite a Platonic concept, as a one-way flow of knowledge from the “spiritual” preacher to the congregation.
Nevertheless many have been brought into the Kingdom through the efforts of a good preacher, so I am not knocking it, just offering new possibilities. A Hebraic way of doing things would be a small gathering where everyone shared according to their gifts. Of course some would have preaching or teaching gifts, but how more satisfying it would be if these gifts were shared in an interactive environment. I have recently helped launch a ministry, Saffron Planet, which simply involves eight ordinary people, miked up, sitting around a table and chatting about ordinary things, from a Christian perspective. Our goal is to thrash things out in order to get a clear understanding of the things of God. It’s not grand or fancy and anybody can do it, but it has been very effective as a podcast, winning two awards within six months of launch (not that I’m boasting of course). The point is that, although the sermon is still valid as a Christian communication tool, it doesn’t have to be the only way.
Let’s take our lead from the very first Christians.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. (Acts 2:42)
The apostles’ teaching? Well they had the apostles there in person, so you can imagine what lively discussions they must have had and what a privilege it would have been for those early Christians to pow-wow with men who had sat at the feet of the Master.
We Christians seem to have lost our reasoning ability, or perhaps it has never been encouraged, so the “reasoning muscle” in our brain has withered and died through lack of use. It almost seems that we have fulfilled the stereotype of the mind-free Christian, people of faith without reason, people without a clear understanding.
Let’s face it, that’s how the world sees us and when they switch on their Satellite TVs and roam through the God slots, there is little there to make them think otherwise. They see mega-Church services, pews packed with apparent automatons, swaying to repetitive rock riffs, orchestrated by a showy performer on the platform. This could be a rock concert, albeit with audience participation and donation buckets. They see passionate appeals for cash, rewarded by green prayer clothes, Holy Land oil or the latest leather-bound Bible, adorned with dubious wisdom from your favorite preacher.
They see earnest teachers pouring forth from a particular theological standpoint and do not have the discernment to differentiate between the sheep and the goats. This is what people see when they tune in and however much real quality there may be in places, the uninitiated do not have the tools to know when the truth is being preached.
For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. (2 Timothy 4:3)
Are we Christians so full of faith that we have deliberately switched our brains off? Do we really expect to make Jesus attractive to others if we demonstrate such naivete? Where was the witness when many of us filled our sheds with tins and stocked up on water purifiers in 1999, because our pastor, or a TV evangelist or our favourite writer told us that either Y2K was going to herald in a new dark age or Jesus was going to return on New Year’s Day to usher in the millennium? Where was the witness when we excitedly boasted of the twenty or so folk raised from the dead in Lakeland, Florida, without any medical corroboration? Where was the witness when yet another “prophet” predicts a specific event that doesn’t happen, or publishes their prophecies retrospectively to show their 100% accuracy!
There will always be those who instigate these travesties and God will deal with them in His own good time. But our responsibility lies in our response. How many of us are true Bereans?
“Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” (Acts 17:11)
These folk had the cheek to query even the most anointed, God-centred preacher and teacher of the day, Paul. Oh that we can have such cheek too!
We too need to examine the Scriptures every day to see if what the preacher / teacher / TV evangelist says is true, so that we can have a … clear understanding.
The Bible encourages us to do so. Here are a few verses
“Come now, let us reason together,” says the LORD. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.” (Isaiah 1:18)
“As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures,” (Acts 17:2)
“So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there.” (Acts 17:17)
“Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks.” (Acts 18:4)
“They arrived at Ephesus, where Paul left Priscilla and Aquila. He himself went into the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews.” (Acts 18:19)
In the Church, faith without reason can produce superstition and strange ideas. Also, reason without faith isn’t too clever either and there’s a lot of it about in the current Church. It produces compromise, where Biblical truths are sacrificed at the altar of Science and “progressive” secularism.
“But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect”, (1 Peter 3:15)
The reason for the hope, that just about sums it all up. Are we honestly in a position where we can fulfil this? All it takes is a willingness to explore and be open to where God is leading us.
(This is an abridged extract from Steve’s book How the Church Lost the Way: And How it Can Find it Again)