Adventist Media Response and Conversation

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Sermons: Training Ground of the Passive Church

I started this a couple weeks ago but wanted to put it up as soon as possible after the sermon I heard at my home church this last Sabbath.

In a recent interview on Clifford Goldstein stated in the comments section:

The first question, from Tim. The fact is that in the 26 years I’ve been in this church I’ve been bored out of mind with corporate worship service. It’s has often been the low point of my whole SDA experience. Now some churches and some pastors have been better than others, and some even pretty good, but as a whole I have gotten very little out of it. What I’ve learned I’ve basicially learned on my own, which isn’t that hard. I mean, we’re dealing with SDA theology, not Quantum Electodynamics or something. It’s not that hard.

Clifford is not the only one that has found Christian church services to be boring and unrewarding. The following is posted on website about a letter written to the editor of a newspaper:

"Dear Sir:
I notice that ministers seem to set a great deal of importance on their sermons and spend a great deal of time in preparing them. I have been attending services quite regularly for the past thirty years and during that time, if I estimate correctly, I have listened to no less than 3,000 sermons, but, to my consternation, I discover I cannot remember a single one of them. I wonder if a minister's time might be more profitably spent on something else?

That letter triggered an avalanche of angry responses for weeks. Sermons were castigated and defended, but eventually a single letter closed the debate:

"Dear Sir:
I have been married for 30 years, during that time I have eaten 32,580 meals — mostly of my wife's cooking. Suddenly, I have discovered that I cannot remember the menu of a single meal. And yet, I have received nourishment from every single one of them. I have the distinct impression that without them, I would have starved to death long ago...

There is a great deal of wisdom in that letter. I have heard countless sermons over my lifetime — many were memorable and many more were not. The truth is, I can't even remember everything that I have preached — that's why God created databases! However, I know that many of the sermons which I heard have made an impact in my life. I pray that the sermons I deliver do the same for others.

And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (1 Corinthians 2:4-5)

The author at has thought he has answered the question. By some type of repetition the listener is changed though the listener does not even know he has been affected. How many of us would want our doctors or other professionals to have been trained by such an osmosis type of education. To graduate and be told you are ready now even though you can’t remember what it is you have supposedly been taught.

The problem is that as churches have evolved they have remained with traditions that were best used for people at a time when the congregation was illiterate and books were rare and expensive. When knowledge was something that only a few had and the expression of information from that knowledge had to go to the unknowledgeable and the uninformed the sermon took the lead. It has remained by tradition the centerpiece of today’s Christian churches even though the masses are literate, have access to all types of reading material and recorded material, both audio and visual. Society has changed yet the church has not. It may be that because of our traditions we believe that if this is what happened in the New Testament church it is what the ideal is forever more. Hard to believe as we don’t segregate men from women. (Well I guess the shakers did, when was the last time you saw one of them?) We don’t tell the women to be silent so why is it that we should hold so tightly to the example of the early church. The early church had no Pastor over the congregation or paid clergy. Those are later practices which have become our traditions.

The local church is not a hospital for sinners or a museum of the best of Christianity. It is a group of like minded people who get together to support one another in their lives and become equipped to serve as ambassadors for God. The Sermon as the centerpiece of the Christian church have become the plaque of the religion. We have trained our members to become passive. Fulfilling their duty to God by once a week hearing someone preach at them what he thinks is the word of God. Half the time it is not a message of God and three quarters of the time it will be logically flawed, yet as with the letter above we expect the good intentions to pervade the audience as they passively listen, trained not to interrupt the sacred proceedings. The thinking ones in the group may interrupt in their minds but they must be silent and if it is brought to the sermonizer’s attention they will likely be thought of as troublemakers.

Are sermons really what the modern Christian church needs? Ecclesiastes tells us of the wisdom of using few words yet our religion centers on listening to many words. Meaningless are the words which fly over us because we sit in passive silence waiting for someone to tell us what God wants us to do. As our society gets lonelier and lonelier why is it that we want to sit in a large group of people, silently?

Wouldn’t it be nice to know the people at your local church; to know about them, to have real conversations with them? Not the kind of meaningless and inane conversation we hear at the so called sharing time when people get up to say “nice to see you, what’s your name, welcome to our church”. We don’t know the people in our congregations because we are trained not to know them. The biggest congregational attendance is for the so called main worship service. This consists of singing (sometimes interminably long singing) and then the message delivered in the form of a sermon which can range from 10 minutes to interminable depending upon the personality of the local pastor.

Of course there are going to be some people that we know and can have real conversations with before or after church. Over time we actually do develop friends at church or at church related activities like our schools. This has been the saving feature of churches at some point there would be somebody we might be able to call a friend at our church and then we begin to feel at home in “our” church.

We play church so badly because it has become a formalized tradition of how a Christian should act. We have the tools and even the tradition of Sabbath School which produces interactivity with other people, thoughts and feeling actually expressed, opinions shared and knowledge exchanged. The part of our local church which offers the most to individuals is the least attended part of our services. The part of church where people can actually get to know each other, where discussion can take place is nothing but a sidelight that prepares us for the grand passive sitting at the sermon.

The news in the past few years has spoken of people getting together and bookstores and coffeehouses to discuss issues and make friends and express themselves. While our churches struggle to get people to come early enough for Sabbath school to discuss issues and make friends and express themselves. The disconnect I would submit is that we have created a false idol out of the sermon and replaced real social interaction with the quasi human interaction of passive listening. It is a phenomenon that has helped to create multi-thousand member churches. These churches no longer have anything like the Sunday school for adults of past generations, just a period of singing and the sermon and home. These mega churches still have some type of smaller group activities but with greatly reduced numbers even when all the groups are combined compared to the main sermon services.

The problem it seems to me is we want to be a church community but we discourage the elements that make us a community. The bonds created by knowing and caring for someone personally, has been replaced by the weaker bond of being at the same place as someone else and sitting quietly.

Continued in Part 2 The local church in the post modern world.


bruce Justinen said...

I feel exactly the way you feel, the difference being you write about change (which is important) and I work undercover. I met with the pastor and talked to him about these same issues twice in the last 2 weeks.

I loved your comment about the popularity of getting together.... and the contrast with Sabbath School being the same thing and yet it is so unpopular.

Ron Corson said...

It is one of the symptoms of the problem when the member of the church has to go to the pastor to talk about change. I probably won't get into that on the next post but it has been over ten years since I attended a church which did not have ministry teams who managed the church. The ministry teams provide the decisions made for their area, sabbath school, outreach, children's division etc. It is not done by the pastor.

The reason this is being done in many churches, I actually was very surprised it is not done in our church here, is that the church is in charge not the pastor. This is probably the most important step to getting people to be involved in their church.

So my posts are not meant to reflect only on my local church. I think the majority of our SDA local churches have this same problem even if they may have more or even less involvement then the church I attend.

We hate change and we hate to take chances, so we want to be followers. If someone sets up a successful church we try to copy them rather then try new things on our own. Unfortunately in the main we define success by the numbers that attend the main performance of the church, the music and the sermon, which is really the least important part of church.

Bulworth said...

I think you're on to something here...

Although it isn't just the sermon that's the problem...the church where my membership resides has a great pastor who preaches great sermons. But I can't bear the intermidable stuff that precedes it; the opening song; the opening prayer; the announcements; the children's offering; the children's story; more singing; then another prayer, and then maybe if we're lucky--the sermon.

So I've been attending elsewhere lately, although I have found myself mysteriously disappearing to my car after Sabbath School and heading home more often than not. Maybe it's my personality and I'm just anxious sitting amidst a big group of people. Or maybe it is that whatever the service offers, comes in second place to doing something else.

And some of it is, too, the fact that as you mentioned, I'm well educated, well read, and much of what constitutes the church service feels contrived; like we don't know what we're supposed to be doing, but we're trying something, anything, to keep the tradition going because that's what we're supposed to do.

But why is it that the megachurches are so populated? Why are so many people seemingly quite happy to sit passively in these mega theatres where no real interaction takes place? Is it because their normal communal needs are being met outside of church, as in the cafe's and bookstores, as you mentioned? It's perplexing.

But while I do see a value in the sermon, particularly when the preacher is able to unpack a passage of scripture, I have little patience for being lectured, told what or what not to do, and just generally sitting back with no option, other than an email or blog entry later in the week, to interact with the message.


ageis said...

Bravo, Ron! This is something that has been a problem for most people and for longer than we wish to admit. The ritual and form of church and its sameness is somehow perceived as sacrosanct and must be preserved at all costs--fear of change?

We have a very lively and close group of 12-15 or more in our SS class and it's hard for some who are not loquacious to speak, but our attendance is increasing because there is only a moderator and our topics are on contemporary issues: religion in the public schools, homosexuality, immigration, etc. If our religious principles cannot be made relevant to the times in which we live they are useless.

At times one hears as many as 7-8 separate prayers: before and after SS class, beginning of service, main worship prayer, offering prayer, before and after sermon and one can't help question how many times does God need our requests before they become absurd?
The singing of the same songs ad nauseum, although we have organ, keyboard, band and drums for eclectic music tastes, and the sermon is never on SDA "pillars" but on our lives today, there is no interaction, it's all a spectator event, less enthusiastic than spectator sports, by far.

How can a church attend to the differing needs for friendships to be developed in such a setting? We have monthly potlucks, refreshments following each worship service, regular events throughout the year on holidays, etc., and we have administrative board who handles church business, but still there is the sameness--from one church to another. How can that be overcome, or at least improved?

Anonymous said...

Hi Guys!.. its nice to hear comment about how the church revolve but what could i say is its good to have this type of blogs to express what’s going around the church and hear what’s every option... here in Sharjah U.A.E. where all different nationality of members come together to worship we feel that lack ness of every individuals or as a system to cater the exact needs of worship, but we could feel that Holy Spirit fills those gaps in-between.. and at the ends of service we full recharge ready for another week of journey.