I don’t like sermons. I blame Sesame Street and video games for my short attention span. I blame hockey for teaching me to love speed and action. I blame my parents who gave me the genetic trait that resists stationary, sequential learning—like math.
If a sermon were a practical, 10-minute exposition of scripture, I’d be happy. In fact, the homily, which is sermon-lite for Catholics and Episcopalians, was the part of the liturgy that I used to enjoy the most. The reverend at this Episcopal church in Vermont that we visited a few Sundays wandered up and down the aisle like a lost puppy, sharing a few things that he must have jammed onto a sticky note the night before. If he only had better content, it would have been perfect.
The first time I attended a Baptist church where the people really belted out the hymns, I stood in wonder at the beauty of their joy and energy. When the pastor hit the 45 minute mark of his sermon, I slumped in boredom. That has not changed for me—though today I bring “toys” to church, as in, my journal.
I honestly think I went to seminary, in part, because I realized that if the sermon had to be 45 minutes, I should be the guy walking around a bit and doing something. Who wants to listen to 45 minutes of information and anecdotes? Not me. If Jesus wanted a 45-minute lecture, I wanted to be the guy sharing it.
For all of my talk about disliking sermons, I can also point to a few sermons that were particularly life-changing. I don’t doubt the power of biblical teaching among God’s people. And I don’t begrudge it to those who feel the need for it in certain contexts.
I think the problem with sermons is the way they’ve become so standardized and laden with expectations we attach to them. I suspect the nature of the sermon will also change depending on what kind of church we attend.
People expect a sermon to teach biblical truth. Many pastors preach that way. However, I think that’s too narrow a goal for a sermon. We can accomplish these ends much more efficiently and completely by picking up a commentary. Sermons that only teach, whether for 15 or 45 minutes, are missing a golden opportunity.
Sermons are a chance for pastors to bring their people on the same page, to rally them around the things God is speaking to their community through scripture. Communicating a message like that could take 10 minutes or 60 minutes.
I see pastors straining themselves, taking hours to write sermons. I’ve heard lots of sermons in many, many churches, and let’s face it: we’ve probably heard more average to below average sermons than we’ve heard good to excellent ones. We place a ton of pressure on our pastors to knock it out of the park each Sunday, and that is a burden no one woman or man should bear.
I’m not so much opposed to the sermon as I’m opposed to its narrow role in the church and the way it strains many pastors. I know some pastors who specialize in sermons, and for them, it makes sense to emphasize the role of a sermon. However, even in that case, does the pastor draw a crowd more for the sermon than for the community? Is that even healthy?
As for the pastors who don’t specialize in writing sermons, what will we do with them? Are they able to lead according to their gifts without preaching? Will we accept them in our communities?
If a congregation is relying on a pastor to draw a crowd with her sermon or to open the Bible for them with his Bible-knowledge-rich sermon, are we possibly relying too much on one person for 45 minutes each week? It’s my role as a member of the congregation to invite people to our community. It’s my role as a follower of Jesus to study the scriptures. More than anything else, I need a pastor to point me in the right direction, to help me see the big picture of the Kingdom and our church’s role.
Pastors are often placed under way too much pressure each Sunday. The sermon is treated as the climax of the entire service, and if the sermon isn’t amazing, everyone goes home wondering why the pastor can’t be more like Charles Stanley or Rob Bell or T. D. Jakes.
This is where our liturgical friends have something to teach free-wheeling evangelicals like myself who make up our worship services on Friday afternoon, rather than following a tradition passed down for nearly 2,000 years that places communion at the end of each and every worship gathering.
I want my pastors to know they can preach for 10 or 60 minutes. I want my pastors to know they don’t have to attract a crowd or take on the burden of teaching me everything I need to know about the Bible. They just need to hear what God wants them to say, say it, and then point us to the body and blood of Jesus as we celebrate communion together.
Our pastors can’t always heal us with their words. That’s not a fault or a problem. That’s just a reality. The source of our healing talked about bread and wine, the symbols of a life broken and bled in order to conquer sin and death.
Sermons can be long or short. That doesn’t really matter. What matters is where we’re looking for our life. Sunday morning does not have to always rise and fall on the power of the sermon. No person should have that kind of burden. No Christian should rely on so flimsy a form. Nothing we can say can ever trump the power of these words, “This is my body, broken for you.” “This is my blood… poured out for you.”
That is a sermon we need to hear every Sunday.