By Steve Webb

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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.

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Image Credits
Scott Wagner; "Pulpit"; Creative Commons
George C Slade; "The Pulpit"; Creative Commons

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Published 10-17-16