Two hundred years ago, lectures and speeches were common. People assembled to hear learned individuals lecture on a variety of topics because this was the only way to transmit complex ideas (other than books, which were expensive).
Today, there are literally millions of communications channels through which ideas can be transmitted. As a result, the live lecture is disappearing. Only two institutions still regularly offer them: universities and churches. And if a recent article in the Washington Post is accurate, the church may soon be the last institution on Earth that trains people primarily by verbal lecture.
According to the article, universities are “abandoning or retooling the lecture as a style of teaching, worried that it’s driving students away.”
“Just because teachers say something at the front of the room doesn’t mean that students learn,” said Diane Bunce, a chemistry professor at Catholic University.
“Since the 1990s, research on pedagogy has shifted from what instructors teach to what students learn. And studies have shown students in traditional lecture courses learn comparatively little,” the article says.
Universities are also being pressured by the Internet, which allows students to sit under the world’s great professors, who are often gifted communicators.
Colleges are responding with more collaborative, participatory lessons. Students are divided into groups and given projects to work on. Chemistry instructor Jane Greco “records her lectures and posts them online as homework.” She devotes classroom time to interactive discussion of the lesson and helps students work through problems.
So, what does this mean for the church? Is the lecture style sermon going the way of the dinosaur?
Yes and no. There will always be live sermons. But will anyone be listening?
Just as universities are re-thinking the lecture, it might be time for churches to re-think the sermon. Thom and Joani Schultz polled churchgoers and found that just 12 percent could recall the topic of the last sermon they heard. Only five percent of men credited sermons as their primary source of knowledge about God.
So if sermons are becoming obsolete, what will take their place?
Discipleship. Our generation may be drowning in ideas, but we’re starving for real human contact.
The problem is, our churches are structured to deliver sermons and music. If there’s any energy left, we disciple people.
What if we could turn that around? What if there were a way of organizing believers around a weekly discipleship experience, instead of a weekly lecture-and-singalong?
Universities are doing it. They’re moving lectures to the web, and turning classroom time into small group and individual “discipleship.”
Funny. That’s exactly what the early church was like. Sermons were for nonbelievers, but the church was essentially a small group discipleship experience. Perhaps it’s time to experiment once again with this ancient strain of church planting, less reliant on a weekly sermon, and more dependent on believers spurring one another on toward good works.