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On Rhetoric

Why do we have sermons, and is there a better alternative?

Those of us who have grown up in the church are so conditioned by the way things are done that we rarely, if ever, ask ourselves why we do it that way. Even those outside the church, but have grown up in a Western culture, have a mental image of what a church assembly is supposed to be like. There’s no doubt that the centerpiece in most protestant church assemblies, whether evangelical, charismatic, fundamentalist, conservative or liberal, is the sermon. But why? What’s so special about sermons and why is so much importance given to them?

Lest I incur the premature wrath of any preachers who happen to read this, let me hasten to say that there is a time and place for sermons. I give them, too. But I do question the emphasis given to sermons and the exalted role they have in the typical church assembly.

Preaching or teaching?

Before going forward with a controversial subject, let me propose a controversial definition. Typically, the delivery of a sermon is called preaching. It may be, but not necessarily, so. If you look at how the words translated ‘preach’ and ‘teach’ are used in the New Testament, it seems to me that they are used in reference to the intended audience, not the style of address. Though there may be some overlap, in most cases, preaching is directed to those outside of Christ, while teaching is directed to those who already belong to Him. A sermon might be the vehicle which is used in both cases. It is the intended audience, not the use of a sermon which determines whether we are preaching or teaching. I don’t expect you preachers to agree with me. Though we’ve never really discussed it, it’s probable that even my fellow Elders don’t.

So, why bring it up? For this reason: I believe on the basis of what I see in Scripture that, in Christ’s scheme of things, the assemblies of the church are intended primarily for believers, and not the unsaved. If that is true, and you insist on preaching to the congregation, you’re talking to the wrong audience. On the other hand, if your intent is to teach – because you are addressing Christians – you need to ask yourself whether the sermon is the best means to do so.

From participant to spectator

But there is another reason to question the sermon style of teaching which is so typical in the churches. Something which impresses me when I read about the churches in the New Testament is the interactive and participatory nature of their assemblies. In a typical assembly, the speaking was not done by just one or two, but by several. Instead of one major speech, there apparently were many short talks. Yes, I’m aware that Apollos was known as an eloquent speaker and that Paul spoke all night at Troas. But they seem to have been the exception and not the rule. And, I wonder if even those assemblies were not far more interactive than the ones we now know.

If I’m right then how and why did the change from the members of the congregation being active participants to largely passive spectators occur? There were many factors which influenced the shift. One was the rise of the hierarchical systems of church government. Along with this was the increasing split between ‘clergy’ and ‘laity.’ It gradually became a fixed idea that only the ‘clergy’ have the right to speak to the assembly. The Reformation recaptured the doctrine of the ‘priesthood of all believers,’ but we have never fully recaptured it in practice.

Another factor which influenced the change in the nature of the church assemblies was the rise of the theological schools. Preference has been given to the formally trained until, in many congregations, it is almost an article of faith that only persons with advanced degrees in theology are qualified to speak. Hand in hand with this was the shift from the Hebrew world-view of a covenant with a warm, caring God who dwells among and fellowships with His people through His Spirit, to the Greek world-view with its emphasis on power and an impersonal and almost mechanistic God. The first emphasized relationship, experience and practical application. The second, knowledge. Anyone can tell others what God has done for him, while only a comparative few feel qualified to speak of God and doctrine in the abstract.

But perhaps one of the biggest factors in the change which took place in the nature of the assembly was the move into church buildings. While there were some benefits, there were also two disastrous consequences from the move into large buildings. The first was that the larger the number of people gathered at one time, the fewer there are, percentage-wise, who are able to actively participate. There simply isn’t time for everyone to share their insights. Secondly, particularly in the era before artificial amplification became possible (most of human history), only a comparative few were capable of projecting their voices so everyone could hear. Naturally, precedence was given to those who were capable of doing so.

The foolishness of preaching

These and other factors may explain the shift from the many to the few, but why have we settled on the form of communication called the sermon? Why has the form of the sermon remained virtually unchanged for hundreds of years? Why are all preachers and speakers, regardless of denominational background, trained in almost identical techniques? Is it because this form of address is particularly effective? On the contrary, I’ve heard and read that experts say that the sermon as a form of communication is particularly ineffective. If that is true, then why do we put so much emphasis on it?

At this point somebody is sure to quote 1st Corinthians 1:21 to me where Paul states that, “… it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.” (KJV) I’ve heard it explained that though the technique may be foolish (according to communication experts) it is the method God has chosen to save people. No doubt many, have been saved by means of this technique. But contrary to the explanation given, I don’t think that this passage is saying that the particular technique of delivering sermons is divinely appointed as the means to save the world. Remember that definition I gave earlier? Preaching doesn’t refer so much to method of delivery as it does to intended audience. Also, bear in mind that translations other than the KJV (for example see the ASV, ESV, NASB, NKJ and NIV) refer to the message, rather than the preaching, as being foolish. That Paul is speaking of the message which is being preached rather than the method of delivery, fits the context of the next several verses. According to verse 23 the gospel is foolishness to Gentiles. Verse 25 contrasts God’s so-called ‘foolishness’ to man’s so-called ‘wisdom.’

Whence the sermon?

So, if the practice of delivering sermons is not necessarily divinely inspired, and it isn’t particularly effective at communicating, why do we use the technique so much? Well, for one thing, it can be a lot easier than the alternatives. At this point all of you who sweat blood over your sermon preparation each week, probably either want to lynch me or are laughing your heads off. But I’m perfectly serious. I’ve learned the truth of my statement through personal experience. I’ll elaborate in just a bit.

You want to know the main reason we depend so much on trained orators delivering sermons? It’s because we’re stuck in a rut that was carved out for us 16 to 17 centuries ago. There were 3 guys who lived during the same time-frame in different parts of the Roman Empire. In truth, the trend was there in strength long before these guys showed up on the scene, but I think it’s fair to say that they are primarily responsible for digging us into the hole we’re in. They are John of Antioch (349-407), Ambrose of Milan (340-397) and Augustine of Hippo (354-430). Do you know what the common denominator is between all 3? All of them were highly trained in Greek rhetoric (defined as the art of speaking and the principles of composition) before they began their ecclesiastical careers. And, they didn’t leave their training behind when they entered the church. John of Antioch is also known as John Chrysostom which means John ‘Golden-mouth.’ He supposedly was the most gifted orator in the entire Roman Empire. Ambrose taught rhetoric and had a hand in training Augustine. Augustine was arguably the most influential theologian in the period between the Apostles and Luther. His book on homiletics is still in use, and excerpts from his discussions on preaching are still quoted in textbooks on the subject. It is these 3 which set the standard. It is they who taught succeeding generations how to do it. We’ve never recovered from their influence.

Where did they get their theories and techniques of communication? Was it from the Bible? No, it was directly from the Greeks. They merely refined and perfected ideas which had been around at least since Aristotle’s time. Don’t believe me that preachers are still trained in the techniques and methods of the 3 men I mentioned and that they got ‘em from the Greeks? Browse through an older textbook on preaching sometime and you’ll see whether I’m right. I could name authors but will spare you. It can be rather startling to realize that the speaking style of introduction, proposition, divisions, development and conclusion that we’re all so familiar with was actually something which was developed for use in the Greek law courts. Is it any wonder that our minds often associate the word ‘sermon’ with ‘harangue?’

It’s fascinating to me that one of the criticisms leveled at the Apostle Paul was that he was a poor speaker. (2 Corinthians 10:10) While giving a defense of his ministry he admits that he wasn’t a trained speaker. (2 Corinthians 11:6) I understand him to mean that he was not trained in the Greek style of rhetoric which, in turn, was a reflection of the Greek way of thinking. Throughout his letters Paul challenged the Greek outlook and emphasized the inner work of the Spirit. This is the larger context of his statements about God’s foolishness vs. man’s wisdom, love vs. knowledge, strength through weakness, being exalted through humility and so on.

The purpose of the assembly

Aside from the concern that the sermon is really an outgrowth of a Greek world-view in contrast to the Hebrew world-view of Christ and the Apostles, I am of the opinion that by being so locked into the sermon we have lost something very vital. Let me try to illustrate what I mean. Just about any book on sermon preparation will tell you that the intent or purpose of the sermon (echoing Augustine, by the way) is to persuade. The majority of speakers seem to agree because, at least in the congregations with which I am familiar, it is almost inevitable that an ‘invitation’ will be given at the conclusion of the sermon. But what is the assembly for? Yes, Paul writes in 2nd Timothy 3:16 that Scripture “…is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness…” (NIV) and, therefore, if we are going to speak from the Scripture, we are, at times, going to try to persuade. Persuasion is inherent in correction and rebuke. But there should be far more to our assemblies than the attempt to persuade. Another purpose of the assembly is to foster unity. It is also for mutual encouragement and comfort. (Take another read through 1st Corinthians, chapters 12 through 14.) When we make something whose main purpose is to persuade, the centerpiece of the assembly haven’t we gotten something out of balance?


So, with what should we replace the sermon? Mutual interaction as was the norm in the New Testament church. This could take a number of forms. Here are a few suggestions: a) The sermon could be replaced with a number of short talks, or devotionals, each given by a different person. b) A topic or a passage of Scripture could be announced ahead of time and, then, anyone who wants to would be free to share his or her insights on it. c) The time normally given to the sermon could be spent offering encouragement to those in the congregation who are going through struggles, and praying for one another. d) A principle of Scripture could be explained, then the whole congregation could discuss how to actually apply it in every-day life.

Things which hinder

I said earlier that one reason we’re so locked into the sermon is that it’s easier than the alternatives. For example, planning and coordinating an assembly with just one speaker can be hard enough. But it can be far more complex if you have multiple speakers. It takes much more communication to make sure that everyone knows what they should do, and when to do it.

Another barrier to overcome is the fear of failure. What if you can’t pull it off? What if the assembly doesn’t work as envisioned? What if the various pieces don’t fit into a harmonious whole? What if you open things up for input from the congregation and nobody says anything? One virtue of an assembly based on a sermon is that it’s predictable.

Then, there’s the matter of expectations. The truth is that most people in our culture expect our assemblies to be based on sermons. A different format can be very disconcerting or upsetting to them.

There’s also the fear of interruption. When we get up to speak, we have a certain amount of material we want to get through. If we allow input from the congregation, it has the potential to take things in a different direction than anticipated. We might not be able to cover all the material we had planned on presenting. Even worse, an interruption; a question from the congregation might break our train of thought.

But the biggest problem of all is our fear of the loss of control. Let’s face it. We like to be in charge. When we’re delivering a sermon, we know exactly what we’re going to say and how we’re going to say it. The whole assembly is built around our message. We control what happens. But when things are opened up so everyone can participate, all that changes. The certainty is gone. What happens if somebody says something which is contrary to sound doctrine? Even worse (from our point of view) what if they say something embarrassing?

Some benefits of replacing the sermon

What’s the benefit to opening up our assemblies to interaction and participation? There are many. a) We expect people to grow spiritually, yet we give them very little opportunity to express themselves which is often one of the quickest ways for them to grow. Teachers always learn more than their students. It’s an incentive for people to learn if they must organize their thoughts and present them. b) Each person’s experience with Christ is different than anyone else’s. By sharing with one another, all benefit from the different perspectives and insights which are expressed. The congregation as a whole becomes more well-rounded than if it hears from only one or two. c) Problems and burdens come to light which would otherwise remain hidden. It also allows those with burdens to experience the the comfort and the support of the entire body. d) It gives people the feeling that they are part of the body. It gives them a stake in the success of the congregation. e) It gets people used to speaking about Christ to others. As they gain confidence from doing it in the safe environment of the assembly, they will feel more inclined to do it outside the assembly. f) We don’t get good at anything unless we have the opportunity to practice it. If we want to develop good speakers, we must give people the chance to do it.

Practical steps toward participation

It may not be possible to totally restructure our assemblies all at once. If, for no other reason, expectations will prevent it. People need time and teaching before they get used to the idea of participating. It won’t happen overnight. Some will never be comfortable with all I’m suggesting. Even in the congregation where I serve, we have not been able to achieve the level of participation I would like to see. It’s a difficult problem. But there are some things which can help move things in the right direction.

There’s one area where it should be fairly easy to increase participation. In the tradition from which I come, the Lord’s Supper (Communion, or the Eucharist) is celebrated each Sunday. It is preceded by a short meditation. Ask different men in the congregation to prepare and present these meditations.

Another relatively minor change which would increase participation is: Instead of the song leader and the speaker of the day always being the ones who pray during the assembly, have various members of the congregation give the prayers. In the same vein, you might be able to introduce other small chunks of content, such as Scripture readings, which could be done by various members.

If you wish to retain the sermon format, at least consider expanding the number of speakers. For example, one of the qualifications of Elders is that they be able to teach. But, in many congregations I have known, they do little or no teaching or speaking. In my view, they ought to be rotating through the pulpit.

If, for whatever reason, you can’t change the format of your assemblies, then consider allowing a time of sharing and interaction afterwards. For example, you could have a period when people could discuss the sermon they just heard with the emphasis on how it applies to their own lives.

If you can’t restructure your assembly, then restructure your class times. Assign short lessons and topics to various people. Announce a topic or portion of Scripture and open the session up to anyone who wants to share their insights on it.

These are just a few suggestions. If you really catch the vision of the value of participation and interaction, I’m sure that you will be able to think of many ways it can be encouraged which fit your particular situation.

It may not always be welcome. In fact, some will be downright hostile to the idea of opening up your assemblies to participation and, heaven forbid, not having a sermon. Even (or especially!) your fellow leaders will be uncomfortable with the idea. It’s likely that you will lose some people. However, I am of the opinion that the more participation and mutual ministry we have in our assemblies, the closer we will be to the New Testament ideal and the stronger we will be.

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