A couple of weeks ago I made a Facebook post saying that I believe we’ve overrated preaching. A rather spirited discussion ensued, and so I wanted to offer up a fuller explanation for the point I’m trying to make.
First of all, I should clarify. When I say “We’ve overrated preaching,” I more specifically meant that we’ve overrated sermons, and that we’ve equated the two. Preaching, in its most basic sense, is just talking about God and the truths of His Word. That can’t ever be overrated. In fact, in one sense, it’s not that we’re getting too much preaching, but that in relying on sermons and classes, we’re not getting enough.
As for the sermon, however, I do believe that it’s become overrated. The sermon is the pinnacle of the church’s learning experience. It’s often relied upon as the means for church leadership to share their vision and goals, as our evangelistic message to visitors, as the catalyst for developing personal holiness and helping people connect with God in their own lives, and more. For a good percentage of Christians, it’s the only Bible instruction they receive all week.
(Some seemed to think that claiming that we’ve overrated preaching is a call to abandon the sermon. That’s obviously not the point I’m making, and it’s dishonest to say that it is. Others were quick to point out that the Spirit can work through the sermon no matter who is preaching it, because the Word is powerful. I don’t dispute that. But that doesn’t mean there’s not an over-reliance on the sermon.)
So why do I say the sermon is overrated? I’ll give you the short version and then a long version, if you have the time and interest.
The short version:
Our goal should be to make mature Christians (as it should be – Matthew 28:20, Ephesians 4:11-16, Colossians 1:28, 2 Timothy 2:2, and more) who can feed themselves and in turn feed others. If that’s our aim, we’ll realize that it’s not going to happen only from a few group lectures at structured times. There is so much involved in becoming a mature Christian that a lifetime of sermons wouldn’t get someone there.
If we’re expecting that to come from sermons (and group classes), we’re expecting too much from them, thereby “overrating” them. We need discipleship where the mature can offer guidance, ask questions, and meet the young in the faith where they are.
The long version:
It’s not personalized. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sought out books, sermons, and articles for a struggle or question I’ve had, only to realize that, while good, they don’t really answer my specific questions. If that happens when I’m seeking out material specific to my need, how much more does it happen with the one-size fits all lessons people hear from the pulpit? (This is also why Bible classes, while important, also can’t be relied upon to help people fully grow to maturity.) Sermons and classes can’t possibly ever meet every person where they are.
We don’t retain. It’s hard to nail down an exact percentage, as research is conflicting, but it’s fairly well established that we don’t retain much of what we hear. However, we do a lot better when we couple what we hear with interaction and the ability to internalize and process by engaging other senses.
We’ve all heard countless sermons, and most we won’t remember. What we do remember, however, are the people who have taken time to connect with us and help us in our Christian journey. We see the same play out in Jesus’ ministry, as His preaching to the crowds was far less effective than His investment in His disciples, the 12, and His inner circle of 3.
It’s not enough.Week to week we need to be able to ask questions, share our struggles, and have opportunities to learn at our level and pace. Imagine if in Acts 2, Peter preached his message, the people responded and were baptized, and the apostles said, “Alright, we’ll see you next week!” That would have been bizarre, right? Instead, they devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching, gathering day after day.
We understand this concept with our children. We often make the point that it’s not enough for parents to rely on Sunday school to train their children up to be Christians. The same principle carries even in their secular education. Despite getting 7-8 hours a day of schooling, plus homework, kids who have parental involvement to guide them and help them do better across the board. Those principles don’t radically change when we’re adults.
The sermon is what it is. It’s important. It’s useful. But if we expect too much of it, then we’ve overrated it. Unless and/or until we have discipleship in place to the point that as many members as possible are getting opportunities to be mentored and guided by older members, then we’ll be relying on the sermon to accomplish too much.