The Evolution of Preaching and Worship

Today I’ve already experienced 4 sermons! Three by very young preaching students, one by someone closer to my age. I see great energy and optimism for the preaching challenge. In several, I sense a deep passion and calling to proclaim the good news.
But in many I also sense that preaching as a monologue seems an inadequate model for our times. Some feel it has been reduced by the renewed emphasis on worship renewal. There’s hardly room for the solo sermon in the worship plan. With biblical literacy at a low ebb and spiritual curiosity at a high, is it time to consider new models?
Many suggest preaching as a dialogue is needed. For some this is a Q/A time after church or prepared small group discussion questions. Twitter has been put forward as both a live interactive tool and a mode of getting the word out. One good friend wants iPads for all to interact with the service in real-time! Doug Pagitt challenges us to make space for other views to be presented by church people during the sermon time slot, soliciting input in advance.
Dan Kimball and others suggest moving the furniture and placing the preacher in the midst of the people, removing the top-down ethos. While some push for shorter sermons, Kimball pushes for more in-depth, deeply-felt messages.
The role of the sermon in worship is widely considered as well. Everything from seeing all other aspects as “preliminaries” to seeing a brief homily somewhere in the middle as secondary to gathering at the Table to conclude each gathering.
Models and questions abound, but clear-cut answers are few.
So…what say ye? What’s happening in your worship and preaching world? I’d love to hear from you. What should the present/near future of worship and preaching look like? Have you experimented? I’d also love to hear from laypersons, not just preachers. We all have a stake and a responsibility!

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Posted on March 1, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. I have a very limited perspective, since my preaching experience isn’t as seasoned as others. My thought about models has more to do with the structure of the sermon in terms of delivery from the preacher, rather than the mode of the sermon (dialogue, talk-back, q&a, etc).

    I believe since more churches are discovering the dislocation of the church from its previous locality (a position with some power and authority). With the church and pastors being a quasi-chaplain to society, because we were thought to be a Christian nation, the sermon was more geared (in my simple and probably overgeneralized thought) towards teaching/reminding the congregation (and society) that we’re “Christian”–so do this, don’t do that; here are three ways of finding hope; the four Ts of temptation…

    Since this displacement, these kinds of sermons (while still very prevalent in the church) are becoming less and less effective in my view. There is no call, invitation, or vision to see with new eyes. Since this dislocation has been sensed by many, but may not have the words or the sense to articulate it, the pastor/preacher is now called to help them name this dislocation and find our new location–rooted in the kingdom reign of God.

    I appreciate Kimball’s call to make messages deeply felt. But, how far do we go before we are simply turning over to psychologizing? Don’t get me wrong–this is a huge part of our human makeup…and a lot of times we aren’t all that free from our own neuroses. But I still see that the structure of the sermon is the most important shift that is taking place today…simply because three points and a poem isn’t painting an imagination big enough to change the congregation’s perspective to invite transformation. Three points, deductive sound bytes, simply can be filled in on the sermon notes sheet before the sermon even begins. I’m reminded of that fantastic scene in “Dead Poet’s Society” where the “Cap’n” is going over J. Evan Pritchard’s introduction to poetry. His X & Y axes isn’t what poetry is about. Three points can’t evoke what the kingdom of God invites to see/experience. There’s a song that the Monkees sang called “The Door Into Summer.” It paints a wonderful picture (that I think has the potential for a sermon) where this guy is so focused on “his counting house where nothing counts but more.” All the while…”And he thought he heard the echo of a penny whistle band, and the laughter from a distant caravan. And a brightly painted line of circus wagons in the sand…” He comes to the end and realizes after all his sacrifices to get “his name upon the door” there’s been no one keeping score. And he thought he heard the echo…

    This echo for us is the kingdom of God! Well, NT Wright says that the echo is none other than God, calling, wooing us into deeper relationship. Three points can’t elicit this.

    In my first reaction to thinking about using new media in preaching comes off to me a bit like the ol’ pastor who thinks he’s hip because he’s preaching from his new iPad (sorry to any one here who’s done that). Sure, I guess, use it (the iPad and new media)–just don’t make a huge deal about it. I think it could come off super gimmicky.

    • Michael,
      Good thoughts, thanks. I may have misrepresented Kimball. He’s not arguing for anything but deeper messages of conviction, rather than “how-to talks”.
      My perspective is that 3 points was out 30 years ago. A shift in structure happened around then, ushering in works like As One Without Authority, Homiletical Plot, Celebration and Experience in Preaching, Preaching Grace, Finally Comes the Poet, The Four Pages of the Sermon, even Biblical Preaching. I have this stuff in my veins. I love it. It’s what moves me and I passionately enjoy delivering the kind of sermon you describe. I think that a person who really engages with this type of sermon can be transformed by grace.
      But we’ve hardly taken new ground for the Kingdom. I love Deat Poets Society. I think it’s a great example of giving someone a transforming experience. But it’s also an example of the kind of person who would never come to our churches. So is there a possible adjustment to a mode of preaching, say once a month, which causes this kind of person to say, okay I’ll check it out.
      I’ve never preached from my iPad, but now that there’s a better video-out solution I might in certain situations. But the mentioning of iPads by my friend was for having them in the congregation so they could experience the sermon more richly and interact in real-time. Think of it as the digital equivalent of saying “Amen!” it’s the work of the people, helping the sermon happen by receiving it fully, actively listening… All this talk is about how to evaluate how we’re connecting and to possibly give people more tools to respond to grace with.
      Yet almost everyone has a cell phone and could text a response. I’ve never done it. But in terms of enabling transformation it could have potential.
      Any method could get old. But could a few experiments like this get a congregation back in the flow of connecting and responding more? The world is waiting for a more authentic response from Christians. I’m looking for ways to get people out there living it, more than trying to look cool.
      But also innovation can signal the attempt to connect. Which isn’t all bad. The world might come check out something fresh. However, transformation is the goal, along with evangelism.

      • I didn’t even remember your original comment about iPads in the first post–I was simply thinking about trying to be “cool” to show that the old guy up front is with it…

        I’m all for experimenting. I think a congregation should always be willing to experiment in an orthodox kind of way. 🙂

        I remember the other night Jay Leno saying something about people using their cell phones to text messages…when the cell phone is to TALK to the person on the other end–so our “Amens” will now become “#Amen”? I feel what you’re sayin’ and I’m pickin’ up what you’re layin’ down. The preacher should never be geared towards one methodology of preaching. It depends on the season in the Christian calendar when I think something like twitter feedback or text questions would be appropriate. And in ordinary time I think it would depend on how one “wires” a series.

        I like how you are thinking–you are open to exploring ways of trying to connect with those outside. Here’s the crux–it’s going to take people in the church discerning where their friends/neighbors/co-workers/family members are to know if a text response following a sermon is going to be enough to draw them in. That might be more for the benefit of the congregation than for those outside. Maybe that’s “glass half empty” kind of thinking.

        Part of my push back on this (internally–in my head) is Marva Dawn’s voice echoing, if the church tries to look like the surrounding culture what’s the point of going to church–they don’t have to go to church to get that kind of culture (she says it so much better). She calls the church to look and be something entirely altogether different — counterculture, alternative reality, subversive community. So, is making worship more like Jimmy Fallon (Late Night Hashtags) really going to move us into transformation? Maybe. It could open the door to getting people to wrestle with a sermon, a bible text, a Christian perspective.

        And while those who teach homiletics might say that the three point sermon was gone thirty years ago, the number of churches I’ve been in across the country over the last twenty years says it’s alive and kickin’!

        Tim, I’m very grateful that you are willing to tease out these questions and to wallow around in them. Thanks for creating this space to trudge in with you. We need more pastors and leaders who are willing to rethink what we already (and still continue to) believe.

    • Michael,
      Yes, this gets down to the issue and maybe it’s highly dependent on the people where you are. And this kind of jumps to my more recent post about what makes something preaching? Is it a very public engagement with the world, announcing good news on the front lines (Paul in Athens) or is it primarily building up the flock.
      Then, is immediate feedback more relevant to the more external or more internal communication? And if it’s internal would it help teach members how to use technology for interaction with the culture.
      Then could we discover fresh uses which REDEEM the technology to enhance community, rather than becoming a watered-down virtual substitute?
      Your comments have helped me articulate the questions I’m pursuing. This last part relates to my Sheen, Qadaffi, Bell post. I’d love to hear your reply to this…And hey, why is it more lame if the guy’s old?? 😉

      • I say “old guy” because it reminds me of the televangelist I saw who was wearing clothing for a much younger demographic and it just didn’t look right on him. Then, he goes up to the ambo and he’s got his iPad for his notes. That’s simply #tryingtoohardtoshowyouarerelevant.

        I have a friend who preaches from his iPad and he’s my age. It’s just like ten years+ ago when pastors were using their Palm Pilots to preach from….Just find it hokie.

      • Yeah, your notes method (paper or whatever) should be fairly well hidden, no need to haul it around with you. Build a spot into your pulpit for it. Your tools should enhance communication not stand between you and your audience drawing attention to the tool. You could use it w/o drawing attention to it. But sounds like he wanted it to be seen. I hope u get to comment more on the other thoughts. We’re into a fruitful line here…

  2. I like the twitter hash tag projection on the screen in the front. Done that. Loved it. Free for all, comments, dialogue, Holy Spirit? I like the discernment in community idea put forth by the Anabaptists. In our traditional Mennonite church, there is a “testimony” or prayer request time of sharing often. That has become a time of dialogical conversation with the sermon at times. Very helpful! The recent Grace & Peace Mag had an article where the author had his cell number in the front. People were encouraged to text questions and a moderator took them and gave them to the preacher after the sermon. Classes after the sermon can be a good place of “debriefing” as well. All of these ideas are a bit threatening to those who have a need to control the context of course. Here is a good article on “interactive preaching”.
    http://www.anabaptistnetwork.com/node/322

    • Thanks, Lon. I like what you’re saying here. Part of me is terrified by the live running hashtag feed, but part of me LOVES that idea. I read the linked article. I think he has a point, especially about sharp clergy/laity divisions and about preachers’ motivations. I also think pagan rhetoric and structures influenced our churches. But the first part of the article makes the point that we should respond to the culture, so at worst, it was a good move at that time, which may or may not have run it’s course. On the overall discipleship question there’s a huge issue. Yet, can’t most of these be accomplished in healthy small groups? Plus, he fails to demonstrate that the interactive model produced better results. We’re to accept that a more biblical process is achieved, therefore results will come? I wasn’t clear on that.
      The biggest remaining question for me: if we take all our options for producing growth in grace and leverage them fully, evaluating all of them constantly, is there still a place for a trained leader to put forth a core message (with the help of a team), which then becomes the basis for continuing dialogue? Remember, Paul, Apollos, Timothy, all served as local pastor-teachers.
      Other questions: is the primary goal of preaching supposed to be content-based? Is the greatest point of evaluation what they remember? Could it be better to ask, what decision did you make today? How did you experience God today? Are you more connected/motivated to live out that relationship in community? Can preaching which has at least some monologue elements facilitate these encounters and be shaped to also foster dialogue?

    • Lon, I’d love for you to jump into my exchange with Michael on the interaction. Do you think it’s (the interactivity/technology question) highly contextual or more foundational? Also, more relevant for building up believers or reaching the unconvinced? And finally are there ways we can redeem these tools to use them in transforming, rather than dehumanizing ways. For example Twitter/texting.

  3. Dave, absolutely. I think this is getting to one of the deeper questions. This approach makes worship the broader context. It then sets the goal of facilitating a response to grace. It then considers context, audience, and the full range of creativity to determine how this response is best facilitated. In that scenario is the sermon as we know it just one option? What’s at stake in that shift? I’ve operated with the assumption that we need preaching and looked at how to support it in the overall flow of worship, understanding that some will be moved by other aspects of worship. I’ve looked at preaching as the most focused way to facilitate this encounter.
    One plus of this view is the opportunity to demonstrate the centrality of Scripture and model how to interpret it over time. A minus is I could become a pundit answer-man so that they defer to me and don’t really own the task of interpreting themselves. In the other model we might go for feeling every time and not teach as effectively. But it might be more compelling regularly if handled right. Plus, if we could somehow communicate the goal as a lifestyle of worship that would be great!
    What else is gained or lost in either model?

  4. Tim- for years I have been pondering more regarding the purpose of the worship gathering, and therefore, how the sermon fits in to the whole. A “sermon” in the sense of a word from God for His people could take on various forms with crearive elements like those used by the prophets. Yet, depending on the purpose for a gathering – seeker sensitive service or community building worship or other derivatives – Ive had questions like what role will scripture play? And what may be the best way to not only communicate a point, but inspire someone to follow in it? And what truly leads someone to a point of worship? Being doers, as well as hearers? Are these thoughts worth considering?

    • Dave, if you get a chance I’d love to hear more of your thoughts. I really liked the core of your ideas and the question of sermon as one tool in the worship experience…

  5. Excellent thoughts, Landon. Context is almost everything in ministry. I’m voting for variety and mosaic. For my intergalactic preaching softball league, you would always be my lead off man! (as I remember no matter how early I ever arrived for class you were already there ready and reading! And I remember your big league dreams sermon, too!)

  6. I love the sermon. I would like to begin there. As such, it is important to dialogue about what the sermon is and needs to be. A very basic definition that I would put out there is just a spoken declaration and invitation to the Gospel, and as such I think it will always be essential in the life of the Church. I struggle with so many attempts that I think are looking to “spice” up the sermon. We have all heard our fair share of bad sermons, and if we’re honest (and have preached some) are responsible for some bad sermons ourselves. Yet, a bad sermon is not a failure of the art of the sermon. It is one poor attempt at the sermon event. I do think that sermons can come in various modes. A sermon may contain dialogue with a congregation, be spoken from in a different placement, involve use of cell phone/twitter/etc., be 10, 15, 20, 40, 60 minutes, etc. Yet, the sermon doesn’t necessarily (and can’t for that matter) contain every one of these options every time. It is also important to realize that this speech act happens in context. Context very much shapes the sermon. It always has.

    Where I think we could look to improve the sermon event is in understanding it as part of a larger whole. A sermon happens in a physical context (literally the physical building) with a particular congregation (age, diversity, years in faith, etc.). That tends to be noted consistently. In my opinion, the realization though that the sermon is a “piece” of the worship event has not been taken into consideration enough. Too often the service has been thought of as separate times altogether rather than multiple pieces fit together to make a beautiful mosaic that points to Him.

    These are some thoughts I have in response to your post. It is great to hear from you. I am very thankful for how you significantly helped shape my preaching.

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