Sermon on a Stick: A Roast to (Modern) Preaching

preachingWhat have we become…as preachers of the Word?

Let me meddle a bit…with the person behind the pulpit.  But let me warn you, it’s probably not what you want to hear.

After all, if you go to the average church this Sunday nearly every preacher (I’d say ALL but refuse to use generalities!) will speak for 30-50 minutes employing the least effective (for retention of material) technique: lecture/monologue.

Yes, I pointed out the elephant in the sanctuary:  most sermons communicate little to nothing.  Communication is more than talk.  Communication is retention (understanding) and practice (application).  If what you say doesn’t produce changed minds, attitudes and lifestyles, then you’re not communicating.

And most sermons don’t communicate.

Think about the last homily you heard? What do you really remember?  Be honest.  At best you recall how you felt (inspired, angry, confused, sad).  Maybe you can recite a point or general idea, but largely we’re just left with a feeling.  And for many church-going folk they feel bored and that’s why preacher makes a good roast for Sunday dinner.

Perhaps this is also why we want our members to take notes.  I know its WHY professors want their students to take notes!  Somehow academicians feel if their learners fill up notebooks with their brilliant insights and ideas then they will do better on tests (some truth to that) but its what happens after the class is over or when the degree is issued that matters.  I used to have dozens of notebooks for classes (or files) and most have been slowly and systematically trashed.  I only took good notes to please the professor not for my own future use.

I think deep down we know if our people don’t write what we say down, it’s basically speaking into the wind. We KNOW it’s not that effective in a visual, experiential and interactive culture but keep doing it anyway.  Perhaps out of tradition.  Perhaps out of habit.  Perhaps out of laziness.  Perhaps out of self-interest.  After all, if we become “less” important to the Sunday morning experience, the people might get the idea we’re not needed.  Which says more about what you do the rest of the week than on Sundays!

If visuals are used by a preacher, it’s a poorly- or minimally-produced PowerPoint with words only or a few scattered, poorly picked photos.  Granted, some preachers are better than others in this department, but far too many sin in a basic communication principle.  After all, if a “picture is worth a 1000 words” then why say a thousand words when one picture will do the trick?  Great communicators employ visuals because they preach deeper, longer and harder than mere words.

Many preachers in larger churches use the jumbo screens for a better view of themselves. This isn’t exactly the visual that I’m talking about!  I understand the need to be seen, but I do wonder how Jesus taught thousands without the benefit of large screens. Probably because he realized that the MESSAGE was more important than the MESSENGER.

If video is used, it’s used to introduce a message not supplement and I have NEVER witnessed a preacher who gave up his sermon time to show a lengthy video (something teachers do all the time).  And yet, if we’re honest, a few of those short 15-20 minute videos out there (beautifully produced, insightful and memorable) are a far better pick for retention.  What’s the last movie you saw?  Chances are you can remember MORE of a two-hour movie (plot, quotes, characters) than a twenty-minute sermon.  Now do you SEE my point?

Perhaps a little history is helpful.  The idea of the sermon as central to the church service is a novel innovation of the Protestant Reformation.  Martin Luther (a trained teacher, by the way) re-engineered Lutheran services to focus on the Word rather than the Eucharist.  At that time, people were ignorant of church stuff.  The liturgy was performed in Latin and German people couldn’t understand a syllable.  Thank God for stained glass windows to tell the story of the gospel (a visual)!  Luther and other reformers made preaching (and teaching) the Word central to the worship service and, to be fair, in balance with the Eucharist celebration.  Catholic churches, to this day, still have short homilies (around 10 minutes).

The Protestant Reformation merged with the Enlightenment and eventually modern cultural sensibilities produced strategies rooted in reason and words.  A sermon had a point (eventually three) and relied upon clever oratory, debate and motivational techniques.  Sermons also continued to lengthen.  In a pre-visual media age there was no harm here.  People would listen to favorite orators (like today) for hours, even days and weeks.

But in case you haven’t noticed that world is history.  Music videos and commercials are brief.  The most viral YouTube videos are 3-5 minutes at best.  TedTalks are less than 20 minutes.  The only people who don’t get short messages are politicians, professors and preachers.  The world has changed.

In a post-modern culture, the communicators use much shorter messages (15-20 minutes) and employ visual stimuli (vibrant photos, compelling videos, engaging objects), sensory experiences and interactivity to weave their messages.  Rob Bell’s Nooma videos are a perfect example.

The biggest problem is we’ve re-defined preaching largely as talking (a lot).  I get that.  The few references to preaching in the New Testament suggest a verbal strategy.  But with exception to Paul’s “talking on and on” until Eutychus fell asleep and to his death (Acts 20:7-12), all other examples (including Jesus’ famed “sermon on the mount”) are rather short.  In fact, it’s probable Jesus’ “teaching” (see Matthew 5:1-2) was a collection of short homilies not one long one as captured by Matthew.

And I’m not sure Paul appreciated Luke’s retention of his fatal story for all time!  How would you like to kill someone with your preaching and have it forever captured and broadcast on YouTube?  It’s not a model of great preaching and I imagine Paul would say it wasn’t one of his better “talks.”  Thank God for resurrection, eh?  Paul was far more interactive in his preaching.  A better example is his message to the Athenians (Acts 17:16ff).  Paul’s talk here is brief, interactive and visual…and it had better results!

Let me wrap this up:  in a postmodern culture the Vertical Church focuses on the Message not the messenger.  The purpose of our gatherings is to reproduce what the early Church did so well and that’s a devotion to the apostle’s teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread (an early reference to the Lord’s Supper) and to prayer (Acts 2:42).  In today’s churches we have it strangely backward:  we start with prayer (maybe), sing some songs and greet a neighbor (and call it fellowship), distribute communion (quickly) and then devote most of the time to one man’s ideas and insights.  The result?  Just look around.  Passivity.  Biblical ignorance.  Apathy.  Could it be HOW we deliver the “apostles’ teaching” is the problem?  I believe so.  Could we be more concerned with our legacy than evangelism, discipleship and equipping leaders?  I’ll confess I had such inclinations.  Play it safe and keep the paycheck.  Do what was expected and stay in the job.  Don’t rock the boat and avoid criticism.

I think that’s why Paul never stayed any place very long.  Outside of Ephesus (three years) and Corinth (18 months), Paul preached, converted, taught, discipled, equipped and then vacated the premises.  Today we celebrate preachers who have served churches for lengthy terms and criticize those who move every few years.  And yet the best test of a preacher is not his tenure but his departure:  for WHEN he leaves or retires does the church continue to grow or decline?

Face it, people today have itchy ears.  Preachers like to scratch the itch.

Frankly, I’d rather cure it.

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About rickchromey

Dr. Rick Chromey is a theologian, philosopher, historian and cultural expert. He has empowered leaders to lead, teachers to teach and parents to parent since 1985.

Posted on August 22, 2013, in Christian Growth and Discipleship, Preaching. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Rick-some of what you say has a kernel of truth in it, but you make preaching out to be a solely human activity. If that is all it were, it would be in a sorry state. But my whole experience of preaching over 35 years is that it is a God-man activity. God is at work in preaching as much (actually more) than any man [or women] is. The effect of the preached Word is always out of proportion to the actual message of the messenger. An axiom of most preachers I know…including me is “My worst sermons are the ones that God uses the most powerfully in the lives of others.” (I believe God has a twisted sense of humor, but that is another topic).

    Preaching has always been mocked. “For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.” (I Cor 1:21) In every age throughout history people have talked about how poor the quality of the preaching was (and they were probably correct!). Even in the “high ages” of preaching, we neglect to say that it was a handful of preachers who are remembered. Most were not that great. And in every age there have been those who decried the ” Passivity,…Biblical ignorance…[and] Apathy.” Yet in those same years, God continued to work through lives that were changed through the preaching of the Word. God’s Holy Spirit continued to work through poor preachers (I mean quality not financially) to convert the lost and to equip the saved.

    One last point…about the length of sermons: I know few Bible scholars who think that the sermons recorded in the Bible are literal transcriptions. They are summaries of what was said: faithful and inspired summaries, but summaries none the less. To make an argument from the length of any sermon in the Bible is impossible…we don’t actually know how long any of them were. They could have been short…they could have been long.

    The death of preaching has been declared many many times and yet it has continued on. Paul’s exhortation to Timothy was not to “Communicate the Word!” It was “Preach the Word!” I think there is a reason for that.

    • Cal, you said, “The effect of the preached Word is always out of proportion to the actual message of the messenger.” I’d be excited to know your evidence for this statement, because at the moment the opposing evidence given above by Rick sounds more realistic.
      Also, I think we are up a creek without a paddle if we cling to “preaching the word” in the face of practical evidence that it’s not the most effective medium. We have he benefit of technology and research that the apostles didn’t have; let’s use them.
      -Will

  2. Great thoughts Cal Habig. I appreciate the kickback. I agree for the most part. BTW, I am not declaring any “death of preaching.” I am suggesting that if we want to communicate (“preach the Word”) that we will need to broaden our strategies beyond a lecture/monologue, particularly long ones without visual, experiential or interactive components.

    I would also gently and respectfully contend that preaching does become solely a “human activity” if we are unwilling to communicate (“preach the Word”) through strategies that change minds, hearts and lives.

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