By Steve Webb

Are church sermons a good thing or a bad thing? For much of my early life they were a bad thing. Growing up in an ultra-conservative (many would say legalistic) church where we met, without fail, three times a week, and were subjected to lengthy sermons at least twice (we never missed these services, short of coming down with a brain tumor or something worse). I thus became an early expert on sermons. The problem I had was two-fold: the first being that as I sat there in the pew, my mind was absorbed in things that were much more interesting than the endless droning from the pulpit — girls, sports, school, fanciful dreams, spiders crawling on the floor, you name it, my mind raced in many directions. The second was that by the age of fifteen or so, I realized I was hearing the same stuff over and over. For many of the sermons, with but a few notes to keep me on track, and a shot of self-confidence, I could have taken over midway and finished them myself. In looking back, I sometimes stand in amazement and confusion that men who were paid to do this for a living could have had such little aptitude for doing what they were doing. For some of these men it could truly be said that each sermon was better than their next. But times were different then and seminary education was not what it is today. I suspect I judge too harshly.

In fact, I would use the above as an indictment mostly on myself, but at the same time, I recognized very early on that I was not alone in my attitudes. On occasion I would sneak a peek back at the adults filling the pews (us teenagers sat near the front) and their faces told a pretty clear story. Most were dull and expressionless, many looked tired, while others appeared to be propped-up corpses. Seldom did I see someone who was bright and alert, and keenly interested in what was being said. I had an uncle who would frequently begin audibly snoring during church and had to be jabbed in the ribs to stop. On one occasion, right in the middle of a sermon, something in his deep slumber triggered him to suddenly stand straight up, albeit with eyes still closed. He just stood there, slightly swaying back and forth, while we teenagers excitedly wondered what his next move was going to be. Suddenly his eyes snapped open and in a flash he jammed himself back down in the pew. If he had been quicker thinking, I guess he could have raised his hands over his head and stood there saying, "Glory to God," but then he would have been accused of having the Holy Spirit. Having the Holy Spirit, back then, was not considered a good thing except in the strictest of biblical senses. Other than that, it meant you belonged to those sadly deluded "Holy Rollers," people who, in the words of Martin Luther, "had swallowed the Holy Spirit, feathers and all." I heard it said, seriously, by a man in a sister church that, "We've never had the Holy Spirit here, and we are not going to start now."

More curious than the absence of the Holy Spirit was the fact that we also seemed to be mostly missing Jesus. It was quite acceptable, in fact admirable, to speak his name while reading Scripture or ending a prayer with his name, but this is pretty much as far as it got. Sermons were almost never about Jesus. Instead they were typically about condemning sin. There were lots of sins to condemn but drinking alcohol and dancing were always high on the list. In contrast to the name of Jesus, it was more acceptable to mention the name of God so long as it was in an appropriately reverent context, but the name of Jesus almost never made it into routine conversation. This attitude extended itself well outside the church such that if you were to even use the name Jesus in everyday conversation, people would have rolled their eyes and wondered about you. Saying "Jesus" was getting altogether too holy for your own good.

By the time of my college years I had had it with sermonizing. I was firmly convinced at that point that nothing new was going to be said from the pulpit, let alone something new that would actually be interesting and applicable to my life. Despite this, I loved God. And Jesus' words were so powerful they would often bring tears to my eyes. My faith had somehow survived the sermonizing. I just inwardly knew God was there and that he represented the ultimate thing of importance in my life.

Fast forwarding many years, my job has kept me on the move from place to place, never having lived in one town (or sometimes country) in my adult years longer than five years. It has given me the opportunity to catch up on sermons in a lot of different places, churches, and denominations. Over the years, the tenor of sermons has changed a great deal, and definitely for the better as far as content and ability to hold an audiences' attention, but I still struggle. What I tend to hear now are sermons on practical living: money, marriage, family, pride, honesty, etc. They sometimes have a lot of good meat to them and I have greatly benefited from time to time. But overall, I put most of them in the category of a Dummies Guide to Doing What You Already Know You Should Be Doing. Granted, being reminded and encouraged about things that you already know, is overall a good thing, but too often I sit in the pew, harking back to my teenage years with my mind wandering far away. I can't help but wonder if there is not a better way of doing things. And I say this with the admission that I have given quite a few sermons myself (including one in front of 2000 people when I was only 23 years old).

Part of the problem here is that there really are people who benefit from these sermons, such as new and immature believers and people in crisis who are looking for answers. I have to constantly remind myself that I am not the measure of all things. Maybe I need more sermons on the subject of pride — that is not out of the question.

I sometimes wonder how and where Jesus would teach and preach if He were to return here for active ministry. What if we were to put him in a pulpit and ask Him to speak? That might be more realistic than it sounds, because Jesus did take the opportunity, whenever possible, to teach in the synagogues of his day. But from what I know about Jesus, his "sermons" would be very different. He would tell a lot of stories. He would tell stories about runaway children, finding buried treasure, searching for missing coin collections, etc. He would probably tell one about "The Good Palestinian" (instead of "The Good Samaritan"). And we would sit there mesmerized; each of us, young and old, mature and immature, reading into His words to the depths that we could understand. On one level, Jesus' parables were almost childishly simple. Everyone could picture a farmer casting seed with some of it falling on different kinds of soil as the farmer walked along swinging his arm. But upon reflection you realize that there was more to it than met the eye. After all these years of reading about the Prodigal Son I still keep seeing things I had not noticed before. That is the way it is with Jesus' parables. We never outgrow our understanding of them. To this day, at age 66, I continue to learn new things as I read them.

But this brings to mind where Paul spoke at extreme lengths in the town of Troas, extending his speaking to after midnight (Acts 20). I can readily sympathize with needing to "sermonize," if you want to call it that, on such occasions. At a time when the New Testament books had not been written, let alone compiled, the chance to hear a visiting Apostle would have been worth an all-out effort to attend and listen. The same would be true today, if Paul were to return. But on this occasion, Paul makes it clear that the only reason for his lengthy discourse is that he was leaving the next morning (Acts 20:7). Yet, one still wonders if Paul overdid it (and he repeatedly admits that he is a fallible man in his writings). Anytime you are speaking at such length that people are not only falling asleep, but out of windows to their death (Acts 20:9), that may be a clue that it is time to wrap things up and call it a night. I personally consider this a good rule to keep in mind.

I earlier said that sermons, particularly in my youth, were mostly a bad thing. This was for several reasons. One important reason was the aura of tiring, passive boredom that was being unintentionally communicated to us youths. Rather than creating joy and excitement, the sermonizing was something you had to somehow learn to endure. I specialized in arm and head positions that would allow me to sleep with the least detection from those sitting behind me. Thus, our church worship, except for the "before and after," when we teenagers could visit and catch up with friends, was sinking deep into our psyches as a time of suffering. Little had I realized, up to that point, that being persecuted for Jesus would come inside the doors of a church building!

Another bad part of these sermons was the content being conveyed. I have to extend mercy here in that I believe what was being taught was done by sincere people with good intentions. I also realize that many of these people came with less than ideal theological education and were doing the best they could. Having said that, what was being taught was harmful in a crucial aspect, namely that Christianity was being taught as basically a cheerless formula. By formula I don't mean to suggest that things were being presented in mathematical terms, or that the word "formula" was even used. They were not. Rather, what I learned growing up was the "Thou shalts" and the "Thou shall nots" of Christianity (with special emphasis on the latter). Salvation was very clearly spelled out, and the steps involved in it were constantly emphasized and repeated whether or not there were any unbelievers in the audience (and there usually were not). These steps consisted of hear, believe, repent, be baptized, and never miss a church service. The last step, church attendance, was not openly stated as a step in salvation, but in reality it was how almost all spirituality was judged (in addition to financial contributions). It was how you separated the saved from the unsaved. One never asked, "How is your walk with the Lord?" Instead one said, usually with a slight tone of self-righteousness, "We missed you at church." When I returned home from college nobody in my home church asked about my relationship with God. Instead I was always asked about my church attendance. It was part of the formula; a relationship with God was not.

I don't mean to suggest, by any means, that our present day church meetings have to be a barrel of laughs. Corporate worship is serious business. But we do need to make an effort to protect our children, within reason, from things that can cause them to dislike church or that are too advanced for them. Special provision has to be made. We must not implant in our children a deep-seated dislike for congregational worship. Diana and I have made mistakes as parents, and wish we could have done better, but this is one area where I think we succeeded in that we found classes that engaged our children and taught them at their own level. As grown, married adults, they continue to have a healthy love for God and His church. Reflecting back on my childhood, the majority of my church friends and peers have fallen away from the faith. They do not attend church and have no interest in doing so. They will not even talk about it. Is this due to the tedious sermonizing that convinced them that church had nothing to do with real life? It would be quite hard to pin it on this single factor but I look back and wish we could have done things differently.

Maybe the reason that Jesus was so effective in his teaching is that he didn't really sermonize. By strict translation, the word "sermon" is not in the Bible. The words "Sermon on the Mount" are not in Scripture. The longest thing that could be called a sermon in the Bible is Stephen's defense and statement of faith in Acts 7, where it is a sum total of 52 verses. Even allowing for the possibility of Acts presenting a condensed version, it probably did not last longer than 15 minutes. You might recall that the practice of extended formal oratory was introduced by the Greeks who became famous for it. The celebrities of that day were men like Plato and Aristotle, who were trained in rhetoric and skilled in oratory. This quickly translated itself into the church. Thus, it is the Christian theologian Origen (184-253 A.D.), who, long after the church had been established, became known as "Father of the Sermon." This Greek style of rhetoric consisting of formalized lengthy discourses spread through early Christian theologians like Augustine, Ambrose, Cyprian, and many others, proceeding in various ways and degrees up to present day. It has reached the point where the entire church service is built around, and focused upon, a formalized discourse: the sermon. That is where the worship time is dedicated. Everything else is a bit of a passing formality preceding the main event. Even Communion has been dispensed with in many churches as taking too much time and being too much trouble, taking time away from the sermon.

This sermonizing is strikingly alien to the early church services, such as described in 1 Corinthians 14:26 which reads, "What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up." The sense I get from Scripture is that formalized teaching is not the main event and is not restricted to designated clergy. The floor belongs to one and all, so long as everything is done decently and in order, and under the authority of the elders. There is not to be one person who teaches all, but instead it is everyone's responsibility to teach each other and grow together. This does not obviate the fact that there are people among us who have special teaching skills and Bible knowledge. We must allow them the opportunity to teach. But it is not to be done to the degree that it relegates the rest of the congregation to be permanent pew-sitters, second-stringers who never have a chance to take the court.

Present day, I am tremendously more merciful towards teachers now than I was in my youth, partly because I have come to realize the great mercy God has extended to me. I further realize I am at the stage in life where I should not expect to be gaining a huge amount of new information from the Bible after a lifetime of studying it. For this reason, I give great honor to those who are doing a good job of teaching. It is a necessary part of our church life. I simply pray that we do it wisely, always seeking to improve, and not getting stuck in traditions and methods that are manmade, no longer working well, do a disservice to our children, and do not take into account the spiritual maturity of one's particular church.

Published 10-17-16