Do we have to have a sermon in every church service?
For most churchgoers, and for a lot of other people, this may sound like a ridiculous question. Surely, a sermon is an essential element in a church service: without it, the singing, prayers and liturgy would all seem rather pointless.
It is not as if the sermon was something introduced at some time in history by church leaders for questionable reasons. Jesus preached sermons. So did Peter, Paul and most of the apostles. Almost all great leaders in the church have been great preachers. Luther, Wesley, Spurgeon, Booth. Time and again, the Bible exhorts Christians to study scripture and exhorts leaders to teach. ‘Feed my sheep’. Teaching is listed as one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. What would be the point of a gift if it was not to be used?
I could rest my case, could I not? Well, no. Not everyone agrees.
What’s wrong with having a sermon?
Some people would say that they do not need anyone else to tell them what to think. We can all make our own minds up about everything. Is it not the height of arrogance to stand ‘six feet above contradiction’ and inflict your views on everyone else? Why can each of us not just read the Bible and work out what it means for ourselves?
- One important point is that in Jesus’ day most people were illiterate. That remained the case until well into the twentieth century. They needed to have the scripture read aloud and then explained to them.
- In any case, why is there no opportunity to argue with, or at least question, the preacher? Nobody is infallible. Most educators today agree that discussion and questioning are more effective ways of learning than sitting passively, listening.
- All the above has been true for decades. More recently, the internet has changed things again. It is now possible to get teaching online and to enter into discussions by means of blogs and tweets. You do not need to sit in front of a preacher.
You may be surprised to know that a lot of Christians agree. There are opportunities to meet and discuss the faith in things like Alpha and Journeys.
I personally commend both of these courses and believe people should continue to meet and discuss their faith after they have finished the course. Many churches do provide for just that.
There are also plenty of online sources of teaching, many interactive. Have a look at the resources offered by the Bible Society. https://www.biblesociety.org.uk/
There are even some virtual churches. I am not aware of any based in the UK but I know of some in the USA.
So is the sermon on its way out?
I believe there is room for several approaches. We should value the knowledge of people who have made a study of scripture at university and can help us see what the books of the Bible meant at the time they were written and can help us see how to apply their messages today. I also think we should value the experience of those who have been working at living a Christian life longer than ourselves, whether they are ordained or not.
For some, a sermon will be the best way. We need to recognise that some people are more effective when given a free hand to prepare and speak at length, developing a theme and illustrating each point, without interruption. That does not mean we should not have the opportunity to discuss their sermons, whether immediately or on another day. Others are better when engaged in lively discussion with little specific preparation.
There are many models of church and some of us are working on creating new ones. Teaching and studying the Bible must always be elements in whatever we do. So let us not throw out the baby of God’s Truth with the bathwater of the traditional sermon.