Sermons: in or out? (Norman Ivison)

Monday, 28 January, 2013

Norman Ivison asks whether sermons are in or out.

I must have visited over fifty fresh expressions of church in the last few years and in only a handful have I heard a sermon as part of the gathering for worship. That's not surprising. The emergence of post-modernism with its dislike of authority and meta-narrative, contemporary educational theory and real attempts to create contextual learning experiences, all cast the traditional monologue-sermon in a rather poor light.

It's a brave blogger who dares criticise the sermon model though, and personally I love the challenge of preparing and delivering a well crafted sermon. In fact many see the conventional sermon as God-given, although I still need to be convinced that what passes for preaching in many churches is anything like the preaching and teaching we read about in the New Testament. Indeed, according to John Stott's I Believe in Preaching, the sermon is 'indispensable to Christianity'. David Day defends it too in a workbook for preachers, saying that whilst the monologue-sermon seems to be universally derided, the speech per se is not dead, citing the popularity of stand-up comedians.

But do traditional sermons make an impact? According to research done by staff and students at Durham University, many Christians look forward to the weekly sermon, but under 17% said they frequently changed the way they lived as a result of hearing one [The View from the Pew, CODEC/College of Preachers, 2009].

When I surveyed 34 fresh expressions of church, it became clear that a wide range of alternatives to the sermon was employed including group discussion, practical action, individual mentoring, and online learning. But to be honest, some of the teaching I experienced seemed rather superficial and one-dimensional, and felt as though it had been prepared at the last minute. I know you can say that about many more conventional churches too, but I guess I expected better from those really wanting to engage people who have never experienced church before. One leader admitted he woke up on Friday mornings with a heavy feeling in his stomach and a thought buzzing round his head: 'what am I going to say to the community this evening?' Transformational preaching and teaching seems to be in short supply both in conventional and fresh expressions of church.

I did though come across some excellent examples of a thought-through strategy to teaching and preaching. One city centre fresh expression based its modes of teaching on the four Honey and Mumford learning styles, based on those of educationalist David Kolb, as spelt out in his book Experiential Learning. He claims that people learn mainly:

  • by feeling rather than thinking, preferring to trust their hearts more than their head;
  • or by watching situations and impartially describing them, preferring to observe rather than experiment;
  • or by thinking more than feeling, preferring to use logic and ideas;
  • or by actively experimenting as a prime way of learning, preferring doing rather than observing.

That seemed a creative way of acknowledging that sermons don't work for everyone.

So before we throw the homiletical baby out with the pedagogical bathwater, we need to try very hard to find good alternative models to the traditional sermon, if we do believe this one-size-fits-all, tried and tested model, no longer works well for most people in our context. We also need to make sure that a balanced diet is offered. David Dunn-Wilson, in his book, A Mirror for the Church, says that every church should be teaching in six areas: the missional, pastoral, apologetic, ascetic, liturgical, and doctrinal. But it is so easy in a fresh expression, to major on the pastoral and missional and forget the rest.

So here is the challenge: tell us how you teach and preach in the fresh expression you are part of. How do you plan what you do and at the same time remain sensitive to the contemporary needs of your community? How do you measure the effectiveness of your teaching? How do you provide opportunity for interaction and discussion? If you engage mainly one-to-one, how can that be sustained as your community grows?

About the author: 

Norman Ivison is Director of Communication and Resources for Fresh Expressions.


why play off one against the other?

Is it necessary to place biblical prominence (Jesus chose and called the Church to choose the foolishness of preaching) at the mercy of the cul-de-sac of postmodernism? Should Lyotard, Derrida and Foucault erode the call to preach? Some of the most (if not the most) vibrant, life-giving churches the world over are foundationally committed to preaching.

I might want to ask if the delivery mechanism - the sermon - is being confused with the method - preaching. It's too easy to say the sermon = preaching but maybe we need to dig deeper to think about what is meant by the foolishness of preaching before we equate the two

I would agree with you, that the sermon does not always equate with true biblical preaching. I could take or leave the sermon, as it's not a biblical concept (not necessarily anti-biblical, but certainly a-biblical), but preaching (monologue proclamation of the word of God in the power of the Holy Spirit) should not be discarded.

I think there are far too many time the congregations are left feeling the sermon heard has no place for comment or response. It is long overdue to pass on comment or respond to a call from the pulpit. A good example of this was the reason I became a fresh expression advocate.

By going out into the community armed only with the knowledge and will to share and talk about scripture, relevant and purposeful to the needs of those you encounter can modern faith be acts of random faith.

Coffee shops are a excellent place as well as your local pub to build and grow discussion and comments if pews and tables at Coffee hours are silent. Modern people are interested in what the church has to offer,a just not by sitting in a pew with the expectations of silence and indifference to the preaching of old time views. SO much of the bible has new things to say, and anyone with a heart, soul, mind and spirit can and should be loving God with their will to share it.

Mission Ministry
Celtic Centurion

Perhaps part of the problem is expecting a sermon to carry all of the weight of Christian teaching, and describing preaching in terms of teaching.

Having a theology of preaching whereby it is the means of encountering God in the written Word of God might correct this.

Of course this "sacrament of the Word" is quite a Reformed notion and works with a high theology of scripture which some might disagree with. Maybe our theology of scripture is the real issue here?

Surely we don't need either/or. Purely discussion often ends up in shared ignorance, whilst preaching alone can often end up dry, or difficult to respond to. What is needed is a space for people to be able to encouter God's truths AND respond to them.

In our fresh expression, we have a 45 minute 'sermon' slot which contains a mixture of from-the-front input, discussion, interaction with popular media, and a chance to respond to what God might have said. It's early days but even the unchurched who come are able to engage with this for 45 minutes.

Preaching is not dead!

I think this sounds like the way ahead. Biblically, the mandate of preaching is upheld and also the early church practice of discussing theological/life issues is clearly active as well. Culturally, if the preaching is based on an honest and faithful delivery of the Bible, laced with testimony, with a touch of the Holy Spirit, and discussed openly and sensitively, then this approach has a real possibility of making a difference in our postmodern context. Or, arguably, any context. Great to read this post.

We've made a big commitment to methodically study the bible together - not picking and choosing favourite bits, but whole books, over many, many months if necessary. It's predominantly discussion based, but the discussion leader has a pretty clear idea where the discussion ought to end up, will have prepared reasonably well and is experienced in giving the community space to breathe. The route however, can bring along many diversions - but it's actually in these 'diversions' - opinions, questions and anecdotes that personal stories and struggles come to the fore. This is where the truth collides with humanity. It's often messy and unpredictable, but the fruit becomes evident as people wrestle with this stuff and apply it among their peers over a sustained period of time.

For me it's been an interesting journey - the son of a preacher and preacher myself of 25 years experience. I've found myself discovering, over the past 15 years especially, that whilst preaching still has a place in challenging, teaching and informing an individual, I don't think it's an ideal pivotal point for building a community of believers. After all, there's a limit to how well you can get to know someone if you only ever stare at the back of their head. When I look back over so many years and consider how many sermons changed my life...? A handful perhaps - all be it very significant. Constant drip feeding week in week out, certainly had an impact. But the reality is that, good, really good preachers - who's oratory ability is equally matched by their ability to live authentically according to their words; are very few and far between. As I reflect, the sermons that have made the biggest impact, are the sermons from the preachers who's lives I've been able to share in, warts and all. This 'level ground' relationship, transparency and shared struggle becomes the bigger communicator than the sermon - but then I could listen all day for hours!

For a long time the church has been engaged in presenting a way of communicating that separates the clergy/leaders from the rest - preaching certainly doesn't help with this, but neither do lots of other aspects of the way we do church. The 'us and them' barrier exists to a greater or lesser degree across all denominations with a varying degree of entertainment thrown in according to taste or ego. A helpful starting point is to take a long hard look at who and what we are trying to communicate among each other? For example for the vast majority of folk in our community, the concept of sitting in rows and listening to someone rattle on for hours only reminds them of school assemblies or court appearances, which really isn't helpful.

At what point did the 'sermon' as we know it, enter church life - is it in fact biblical? I still find myself returning to the question; How did Jesus teach his mates and how did the apostles teach and disciple the new believers? Many of our apparent aspects of what we preach as essential 'biblical' church life, may have very little to do with the New Testament after all when we really dig beneath the surface and explore the first few centuries of the church.

However we choose to communicate, it's best done on level ground, in a shared struggle with a transparent integrity that oozes the poverty of spirit, meekness, humility, mercy and grace that we 'preach'.

Great post Norman! Sorry if I sound like a preacher....!!

The best sermon is a life lived honestly and shared. I think what we forget is the key idea of engagement and reflection. How we do these two activities will influence how we formulate that sermon. I personally get bored in my own sermons...but people thank me for them and recount them some months later! In our fresh expression I prefer to tell stories and ask questions. Story telling is very ancient, and teaching by asking questions and not giving answers just as ancient. But we need a firm context too for people to feel safe to ask the questions and even answer them. That means they need a certain level of spiritual competency (not necessarily language) to have that confidence to make them feel safe. So, I say the sermon, however you do it, needs to help people build the competency skills (teach doctrine, history, spirituality); build a context of friendship (community); and communicate all this through story, whether drama, traditonal story telling, video, interview...that helps people to discover it for themselves and with one another.

Im going to restraint myself and just through in two things to the pot.
The first, I think that whilst we (church) often maintain a pattern where by the preacher is only inputted into by their learning at bible college - and not with training or input from other professions eg teachers or youth workers then we severely deny ourselves. A world in which an appreciation of different learning styles and the like are common place. The second, I would advocate for a mix of things, in that talks are good but so are times to get to know each other. The sermon then not as a given but as a result of someone having felt and thought on what a group needs to grow in love with God, Gods love for them, love with each other and love for the outside world (local, national and international)

I think I'm out. I can do a sermon, sometimes a good one. But I think that most people who receive information that way are already catered for. It is difficult tho - there haves been people who have left FX"s because they wanted a sermon. But in my experience they are normally already Christians. I rarely hear it from new or emerging disciples.

But until the church begins to teach new and innovative ways of breaking The Word then it will be unlikely that other ways and methods will be accepted.

I think until the Church places a priority of preaching which is Christocentric and is touched by the power of the Holy Spirit, new or 'emerging' (I don't believe in the concept of emerging disciples as you might imagine)disciples will miss out spiritually on what God has chosen as his preferred method of communicating his truth. No matter what postmodernism may suggest.

In our café church, we have a short talk with discussion questions around tables, then a prayer activity that gathers it all up. The questions contain one that anyone could answer, then a couple that are a bit more demanding. Through doing the short talks, we're training up speakers and preachers aged 11 and upwards, and even younger ones take turns host the event. I'm excited by what we're seeing, as these young people gain confidence in helping others experience the presence of God and
share faith and learning.

"It is plain that pulpit preaching can no longer be relied on as the principle medium for evangelism. You cannot convert people who are not there."

'Towards the Conversion of England' - report to Church of England. 1945. p.3.

This is not a new debate. As someone who has preached a large number of sermons over the years, many of which were quite brilliant, but most of which made very little impact, I think that it is fair to say that conventional preaching should not be the only tool in the box that is need to communicate the gospel. I think that the key concept of is that of 'communication'. Jesus was a brilliant communicator - he used conventional sermons, but also told stories and took his disciples on practical workshops. The sermon still has a role - indeed, there is a dearth of good biblical exergesis in many churches today - FX or otherwise - what is needed is variety and imagination.

I am training as a lay reader, and I love preaching, but I'm also a school teacher. In my many years of teaching, the one thing that children say is the most important thing about their lessons and their learning is their teacher, and their relationship they have with their teacher (and adults are not that different to young people when it comes to learning).

In my experience, the best learning that makes a difference, that children remember for the rest of their lives and makes a lasting impact, comes from teaching with passion, conviction, authenticity, authority, creativity, preparation, knowledge, experience, and a willingness of the teacher to realise that they are not always the "ones who know" and the children are the "ones who need to know". It is a shared journey. The best lessons I've ever had a privilege to lead are the ones where I've come away having learnt something profound myself from the children!

But the key thing, I truly believe, is relationship. Children are amazing because they know when you're kidding them, when you're trying to fob them off with a half-baked answer, when you're bored with what you're trying to teach them, when you've failed to prepare properly. But .. when they see and feel that spark of passion that you have, that you know and love and have lived what you are speaking about, oh they are so willing to join in the journey! And everyone leaves the room changed forever.

I believe in preaching. I believe in sermons. But I also believe in creativity. Our Living God is the ultimate Creator - just look at the gobsmaking variety in all His glorious Creation! And I believe in living what you're preaching, so it's not just a nice idea or living-well or moralistic, but preaching that you've wrestled with and lived and died and risen again through.

Church is the gathering of the people of God, but surely to really "be" church there should be the preaching of the Word, and the sharing of Bread and Wine around the table together. So let's not get rid of preaching, whether it's in a fresh expression, emerging, inherited or traditional church, but let's get rid of irrelevant, uncreative, ill-prepared, pie-in-the-sky dry preaching.

Finally, some words from the Word ...

"How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?" (Romans 10:14).

"They were amazed at his teaching, because his message had authority" (Luke 4:32).

"When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law" (Matthew 7:28-29).

"Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers" (Luke 2:47).

"When the crowds heard this, they were astonished at his teaching" (Matthew 22:23).

"'No one ever spoke the way this man does,' the guards declared" (John 7:46).

As an ex-teacher who's now a lay minister (C of E Reader) I thoroughly agree with most of whta you have shared. However, if we carefully examined what congregations 'get out of' sermons we may be disappointed. I believe we need to consider different ways of sharing together what God is showing us as well as being more creative in how we deliver sermons. Thngs are changing, we do live in a post-modern world and some do struggle with authoritarian ways of communicating (including me at times!). So let's be a little braver, take a few more risks and not 'change with the times' just for the sake of it but because we may well need to. , if we are to remain connected and relevant.

The only time I have 'preached' at a Fresh Expression I decided to do what I always try to do in traditional church - and that is to engage the listener in thinking theologically about the message of a particular biblical text. I sat down, and in conversational style delivered what I normally do. Feedback suggested it went down well. So my personal view is 'preach' in whatever context - Jesus did.
Thank you, Norman, for the article - its great and the discussion thread is good too.

What a great subject to bring to the table Norman.

I recently read John Coles (New Wine) reiteration of the purpose of the New Wine network but, it appears, some traditions in the established church are so cherished that, to even challenge their purpose, causes schism.

I have been a follower of Christ for 30 years now. I am not ordained but I am married to an Anglican ordained minister and I very much experience the "pain of birth" that each sermon must follow. I am not convinced that the "pressure" of preparation and the "appetite" of the recipients are well matched and the effort expended in producing conventional sermons is not equitable with the level of life changing activities that results from hearing a sermon.

I guess there will continue to be a place for the revelation of the word as interpreted by the preacher to instruct the flock but I think a fresh challenge to the time honored tradition and methodology of "classroom" delivery is well overdue.

Fresh Expressions/ New Wine skins must lead us to re-evaluate tradition (however precious we may feel about holding on)

I also really love hearing a well-crafted sermon, but they are few and far between. Conversely I really hate hearing a bad, boring or plain wrong sermon and I sit and fume that someone has the gall to steal from my time in this way.

In our fresh expression we don't preach for a couple of reasons, but primarily because the people who attend have not the concentration to take in a sermon.

Instead we prepare discussion questions which help open up an issue which has local resonance. It means the leaders get a sense of what the group thinks about the issue, it helps the attendees feel listened to and validated, and it helps produce a sense of communal ownership of a particular viewpoint. At some point in the discussion, bible verses are introduced to show the bible has relevance to these 'modern' issues.

Often the discussion ends with people still disagreeing, which we see as positive. Having a means of disagreeing without turning to name-calling or violence is modelling a better way of handling conflict.

These discussion evenings require as much planning as the planning of a sermon but we have found them to offer a much more enriching communal experience.

If the place of sermons in church life is to be adequately considered we must also stand outside our particular time and place in history and compare the riches of our situation with the much leaner opportunities for teaching in much of prior church history. We should also consider how our discussion about the place of didactic teaching looks from the perspective of the two-thirds world ie developing countries. Some of these situations more closely parallel New Testament times when there were no printing presses or mass media and many were illiterate and couldn't get information for themselves.

Its also worth remembering that the sermon was not the centre of the church service before the reformation, and Paul's comments on how church gatherings functioned in the NT imply something rather different from the minister or pastor giving a sermon every Sunday. 1Cor 14:26.

Western society has been referred to as the information society and surely the western church has imbibed this dynamic. Many evangelical Pentecostal churches are full of information. We call it 'teaching'by which we usually mean listening to a sermon or participating in bible study. The western evangelical church (maybe it's wider) is overall surely the most taught church in the whole of church history. We have ready access to the best scholarship, an enormous amount of written material with a plethora of bible translations, excellent concordances, many bible dictionaries, high quality commentaries and literally millions of Christian books.

In our house church we have lots of discussion but few didactic talks/sermons. Most in our group are mature Christians who know far more than we put into practice. The task is much more about application of what we know than the need for new information, though that is sometimes needed. Sometimes we 'invite' a high quality teacher in via online media and watch a talk/sermon downloaded online. The internet, for the first time in history, gives us ready access to many of the most gifted bible teachers, and preachers. How does this alter the outworking of the ministry of didactic sermons and teaching in our churches?

If you have a fresh expression with new Christians there will be a much greater need for new information and didactic sermons will ussually be of more benefit. Older Christians may benefit from something different in the same way that when a student goes to school to learn biology and then goes to medical school, the time comes when s/he graduates. S/he leaves university and the rest of working life is about the 'practice' of medicine. There is much discussion about particular cases and thinking about how to apply earlier learning in new circumstances not previously encountered. Of course new information is sometimes still needed, but the balance between teaching and application has shifted greatly. Should it be any different in church life?

I think less may well be more for many current western contexts. Fewer sermons, of higher quality may be better. We are at risk of simply enjoying having our ears tickled and falling into the trap of being hearers of the word but not doers. With fewer sermons there would be more discussion about issues raised by the sermon, case discussion, encouragement, telling of stories, and facilitating the application of what we know. We have so much teaching in sermons but how much mentoring/discipling? The sermons are good and necessary but are they sometimes getting in the way of something better?

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