Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Church Shopping Saga Continues: Is the Sermon Good?

This post is one in a series about the adventure of finding a new church to attend after moving to a new town.  You can find the others with the label "Church Shopping".

The sermon.  The high point of a church service.  It can inspire, educate, bore, and anger.

There are many different styles of sermons and many different ways in which they are delivered.  The sermon and the person giving the sermon are intricately tied together.  Some pastors tell jokes, some pastors will use video illustrations, some pastors will get emotional and cry.  In some churches, a section for notes is provided in the bulletin, from a blank spot to a fill-in-the-blank outline.  Some pastors will explain a lot of history behind the Biblical text.  Some probably have no idea what the history is.  Some focus on applying the text to our lives and use creative stories to show how it can be done.  Some forget about application altogether.

Not everyone will relate to every sermon given, for various reasons.  It may not be a subject that is pertinent to his or her life that day.  It may be too intellectual and not practical enough.  It may be too application-oriented and give no background to the Biblical text on which it is based.  It may be that the speaker is boring and people are tired and doze off.  It may be that the speaker is very entertaining and people remember the good joke or the crazy thing the pastor did but nothing of the sermon itself.  It could be anything.

Sermons are not an easy thing to craft.  Everyone listening has different levels of education and experience and are in different places in their faith.  It's like a teacher in a one-room classroom trying to give a lesson to a room full of students that range from preschool to those who have a Ph.D., and keep them all interested at the same time.

Generally, I have thought that the churches we've visited so far have had good sermons.  They've had a good mix of education and application, which I think is important.

But why is the sermon so important?  Why is it the focal point of the worship service?  What is the purpose of a sermon?  Is it to educate?  Inspire?  Encourage?  Convict?  All of those, and then some?

I honestly usually get very little out of a sermon itself, and I have a hard time listening--I would much rather read something (and highlight and make notes and then write about it myself) than listen to something.  This is probably somewhat hypocritical of me since I like giving sermons, but what I like about giving them is that I have to do a lot of reading and research and thinking in order to write my words out, and I learn from that.  To me, giving a sermon is "here, let me share with you what I've learned".

I think that the general expectation of a sermon from the standpoint of the one hearing it is that it is supposed to feed a person.  But, as I explained in Are We Fed Part I and Part II, we shouldn't rely on the sermon to fill us.  In Organic Leadership, Neil Cole writes that "A common complaint heard from parishoners who walk out the door of churches never to return is that they weren't fed by the pastor's teaching...It is commonly understood that the pastor is supposed to 'feed the sheep' or deliver such an inspiring message each week that the entire congregation leaves with an increased understanding of and a deep commitment to God and his Word" (page 81).  Cole questions whether or not this teaching is Biblical and decides that it is not; it is an "infantile and self-righteous excuse for lack of spiritual growth" (81) and explains that actual shepherds do not feed actual sheep, so why do we expect the pastor-shepherd to do so?  He claims that any teaching from the pulpit is "milk", not "meat", because it has been predigested before being given to the people to eat.

I think Cole makes a good point with this, and I think it explains why I like giving sermons rather than hearing them, because I need the "meat" of all the reading and studying and thinking that goes into preparing one.

So, after all of this I am still left wondering what place the sermon has in general, and for me specifically as I contemplate all of these different "qualifications" (you can read the 7 we came up with here) for deciding on a church to attend regularly.

What makes you like or dislike a sermon?  Do you think about it later or does it leave your head the minute church is over?  Do you like sermons that teach you new things about the Bible or do you lean towards favoring the sermons that are mostly application-oriented?  


Eleni Poulakou said...

I presume you are more of a visual than of an auditory learner :)
It's not hypocrital, it may actually be your learning style.

Kelly said...

Yes, I am definitely more of a visual learner. This is very apparent when I click on links that friends post or tweet and if it goes to something where I have to listen, I don't even bother with it. If it goes to something I can read, that is much better for me.