Are sermons becoming obsolete?

PulpitTwo 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.

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  • http://www.bengreenberg.org Rabbi Ben Greenberg

    Fascinated by this idea. What would that practically look like during the midst of a Sunday service? What would you do during the “Sermon Slot”?

    • David Murrow

      Maybe we don’t need a sermon slot at all. One time I read all the parables of Jesus aloud, timing them with a stopwatch. I made a startling discovery: the lessons that changed the course of history average just 38 seconds in length. The key to good teaching is not to present a multitude of concepts; it is to present one concept in several different ways, so your audience marinates in the truth. I’ve long advocated 5 minute sermons. The sermon could be augmented by drama, video, role playing, discussion groups, whatever your facility will allow. The key is to make the same point many different ways so people remember what you taught them.

  • Rachel M. Srubas

    This is a clearly written and thought-provoking piece that sets up a false dichotomy between oratory and discipleship, as though the latter should replace the former. Good preaching consists of much more than “ideas” or “lecture, ” as you suggest. In general, effective oratory appeals to the intellect, yes, but also to the emotions, memories, imagination and other aspects of individuals and communities. Preaching at its best prompts discipleship by moving people to think, envision, pray, and act. Thank you for prompting me to comment. I hope you have occasion to hear some powerful and inspired sermons that will invite you into a richer, more nuanced understanding of the preached Word.

  • http://yaburrow.googlepages.com yvonne

    Some churches have sermon plus discussion, or replace the sermon with a facilitated discussion.

    When I have held discussions with my coven (on reincarnation, healing, the nature of deities, what is sacred, the ethics of magic, etc), I have learnt just as much from my coveners as they have learnt from me.

    You do need a good facilitator and a good way of including everyone in the discussion. A talking stick is a great way to do this. And the minister or rabbi or priestess doesn’t become obsolete, because if you know more than other contributors to the discussion, you can still share your knowledge, and structure the discussion accordingly.

  • Rebecca Cusey

    Interesting. You know, I grew up nondenominational but recently switched over to Anglicanism. I find the liturgy does just what you’re talking about for me. If it’s infused with the Holy Spirit, it’s amazing. And it takes the emphasis off the sermon and puts it on Jesus and the Eucharist. It’s been very healing for me. Really, it could be anyone up there delivering the Eucharist. And the sermon matters, but isn’t the only thing that matters in the service. Much more participatory, less passive for the congregation.

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  • Alice

    Before churches focus on changing the worship service, I think it is much more urgent that they focus on changing how the children and teenage classes are done. Growing up in Sunday school, there were so many classes that were all dry lecture or taking turns reading a sheet of paper aloud. Children and teenagers need interactive discussion and activities even more than adults do.

    I was in a big Sunday school class recently, and what they did was the teacher would talk for a while, and then he would ask a question and we had time to discuss it with the 5-6 people nearby us. Then the teacher asked if anyone wanted to share their answer with the whole class. Then we repeated that process until the class ended. I think it’s a good way to balance lecture and discussion, and small groups are a good idea because people usually won’t speak up much if they are in a big crowd.

    The preacher at the church in my hometown is really excellent. He studies a lot and reads many books so that he doesn’t become stagnant. I don’t know how he does it, but he can take the most cliche and worn-out topic in the world and make it seem fresh. I think the enthusiasm he has for God and the Bible is contagious. He asks deep questions, and he preaches like he is talking to you personally, no condescending “Preacher Voice.”

    So yes, I think the people who want to do away with sermons entirely haven’t heard a good one in a long time. But it’s not entirely fair to blame preachers for that because they are often overworked and the problem could very well be within our own hearts.

    It might be good for most churches to only have a sermon once or twice a month, so that the preachers would have more time and energy to prepare and so the congregation could do more interactive things, whatever that happened to be.

    I also think it’s really neat when churches occasionally use a Wednesday evening or Sunday morning to go out and do a service project instead of sitting in a pew. There are many ways to worship God and learn about him, and all of those ways are important.


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