The Church Must Do More Than Preach

C. Michael PattonMy six-year-old son Will loves to preach. I have to admit: I take a little pride in this. I don't believe he has ever seen me preach, but somehow he has caught on. He has delivered about ten sermons in his brief life thus far. His first sermons went thus: "God loves you so much. He will never stop loving you. And even if he does, it does not really mean that." He reiterated the point over and over again in five different ways. It was too cute.

Lately, what I have noticed most is his format. On Christmas morning, he preached a sermon for my family. Twelve of us gathered around at the Credo House of Theology as he shared in front of the fireplace. Here is how he structured his sermon: (1) the introduction, (2) a Bible reading, (3) a main principle, (4) a traditional song (in this case, Joy to the World), (5) a congregational response song (it was too funny), and (6) the closing prayer. I am sorry to inform my Baptist friends that there is no altar call in my son's sermons.

The introduction is what got me thinking. He laid some rather surprising and enlightening ground rules.

"First, the rules," he said. "No one can talk while I am talking. No one can come up here. And everyone must be quiet."

This sounds like a reasonable set of requirements, especially when one considers that his three-year-old brother Zach has indeed come up and ruined the sermon about nine out of the ten times Will has sermonized. Still, I found this interestingly typical of the sermon style found in most churches today. Will simply made explicit what was already implicit. After all, we prepare quite a bit for our sermons. When the hours of labor have yielded their fruit, we have many things, we think, that must be covered. We have the perfect illustrations, much needed cross-references, specific words that people need to understand, important background information that must be known, and essential points of application that people need to take with them. If any one of these is neglected, who knows if the message will be caught? Therefore, the modern sermon begs for the rules that my son Will required. Audience participation is too unpredictable to allow. Just remain silent, please, and passively receive as the Holy Spirit speaks to you though the preaching of God's word.

I am not here arguing against Will's requirements. In fact, I think that they are important for the "preaching" of God's word. Don't change this. However, preaching is not enough.

There should be a time when people in the church can learn in a different environment with different rules. There should be a time when people can interrupt and ask tough questions. There should be a place where people feel free to object. There should be an atmosphere where people can express their doubts and struggles with doctrine without fear of being publically reprimanded. There should be a place where people can intellectually engage their minds at a different level.

I face this fact every day through encounters with those who are desperately seeking to hold on to their Christian faith while scratching their head during sermons. They are created by God to be critical and ask questions, but often our structure does allow for such breaches. The rules are set: no talking, no doubting, no questions, and no wrestling with what the Bible says. Just listen to the sermon. While I believe the sermon needs to have this format, we also need to provide a place where tough questions can be asked, where people's faith can be challenged, and where their minds can be engaged at a whole different level than the sermon affords.

Preaching is only a small element of the educational program of the church. Preaching alone is not enough. People also need to be taught. We need the sanctuary and the classroom.