In the previous post, we looked at the Biblical precedent for preaching and saw that sermons are not merely a Western cultural tradition but have their foundation in the pages of Scripture. In this post, I would like to wrap up by responding to some objections to maintaining the sermon as a central part of the life of the Christian church.
Objection#1 “Sermons are ineffective”
Perhaps you will grant to me the fact that preaching is important in Scripture but would go on to add that times have changed and sermons just don’t “work”. In some ways, I agree. I have heard lots of sermons that just don’t work. But it is not because the idea of preaching a sermon is a bad one but rather because the sermon that someone decided to preach was a bad sermon. It was boring. It was irrelevant. It was mostly the preacher’s own ideas and hobby horses with little reference to Scripture. It explained the meaning of the passage for ancient Israelites but failed to show how it applies to modern listeners. It was all puffed up emotion or moralistic platitudes with little reference to Scripture. It did nothing to address the misunderstandings and objections of the listeners, failing to make people see what God is saying and how it intersects with their life. It is just a collection of observations about the passage that the preacher thought were interesting but there is no overall coherent message. The preacher, fearing that he will lose people, fills his sermon with too many irrelevant funny stories that at the end of the day make people laugh but fails to feed them with the Word of God. There are lots of examples of bad sermons but that is not any justification for
We shouldn’t be surprised if a bad sermon is not effective. However, when a sermon is Biblically grounded and speaks directly to the people where they are, we should expect it to be much more effective. Of course, we must not forget the God factor. It is possible to preach a good Biblical sermon and get little response, through no fault of the preacher but through the hardness of the listeners’ hearts and the sovereign decision of God. But when the preaching is Biblical and the Holy Spirit is moving, look out! Peter preached at Pentecost and three thousand people repented in one day. I’d say that that was an effective sermon.
Objection#2 “People learn better in a participatory environment. Listening to a sermon is too passive.”
God knows about different learning styles. He invented them. The people in ancient Israel and the New Testament church had a variety of learning styles too because people are people no matter what century they live in. And for that reason, we should not fail to have Bible study groups, Sunday school classes, and personal conversations that help people understand God’s Word in an interactive two-sided way. But God has still given us the sermon in the pages of Scripture as a central way to proclaim God’s Word and teach His people. As for the sermon being too passive, I want to suggest that the problem may not be with the preacher but with the listener. Are you as a listener paying close attention to what the preacher is saying, looking back at the passage being preached to see if the Scripture really says that, and actively thinking about what is being said and what it means for you? A lot of people have not been instructed as to how to listen to a sermon, so they just sit there expecting their weekly dose of encouragement to be served up on a silver platter without any thinking required on their part. Sometimes I will take notes on a sermon so that I can look back at them and be reminded of the content of the sermon and can think upon it later. We need to train people to be active listeners. And the listeners themselves need discipline themselves to pay careful attention. For those coming from a Thai Buddhist background, the idea that it is important to pay attention to the content of the sermon may be difficult to grasp at first. If a Buddhist goes to the temple and at least physically hears the monk preaching, then the listener earns merit and has derived religious benefit from the exercise even if they spent the majority of the time whispering to their friend or examining the paint on the wall of the temple. However, if someone wants to hear what God wants to say to them in the Bible, it would seem natural that they would want to pay attention to what is being preached. Someone is not going to get much out of the sermon if they are fiddling with their mobile phone or doodling inside the back cover of the songbook. It takes work to get something out of a sermon. If someone is not willing to do a some work in their listening and pay attention to the sermon, then I am not surprised that they don’t get anything out of the sermon.
Objection#3 “The sermon is a Western church tradition, rooted in culture and not the Bible. We should find more indigenous ways of teaching the Bible.”
We have already covered the Biblical foundations for preaching and observed that preaching is rooted in Scripture. It may have become Western church tradition but with good reason - it is in the Bible. From a cultural and pragmatic point of view though, I would say that preaching is a culturally appropriate and indigenous form of speech in many cultures. It is here in Thailand. Buddhist monks preach. They give sermons. I went to the book shop at the local shopping center, and there is a big tall shelf with tons of MP3 CDs and VCDs of Buddhist monks preaching. Some are more serious conservative preachers and some look like popular youth speakers, trying to connect Buddhist teachings to the lives of modern young people. The fact that they sell Buddhist sermons in the book shop means that someone is buying them. Many nights when I go out to buy food at the fresh market across from the big temple here in town, there is a monk preaching on a loud speaker for all the surrounding community to hear. Granted, I have my doubts as to how many people are listening but he is preaching nonetheless. Monks preach on the radio and on TV, besides at the temple. So, just from a cultural contextualization point of view, the sermon is a very valid form of indigenous Thai speech that is used to communicate religious truth. Truthfully, it is the interactive participatory discussion around the Bible that feels more foreign to Thai people than the sermon. Although I wouldn’t go this far, if you wanted to be really indigenous in your church planting, then you should cut out the participation and question-and-answer time because that has more of a foreign feel to it than a sermon.
The institution of the sermon is rooted in Scripture and is an important model of communicating God’s truth that he has given to the church. Granted, we need to use a range of methods to communicate God’s truth, but I would seriously question anyone who would want to jettison the sermon from the life of the Christian church. To get rid of or sideline the sermon in churches today, either Thai or Western, would be to ignore both the Biblical precedent and the common cultural conventions of religious communication.