I’ve heard hundreds of church sermons, but I’ve been thinking recently about how much difference those sermons have made to my life. I’ve heard many interesting, inspiring, thought provoking messages in church services over the years that I’ve been a Christian but with what end result? If you’re a church-goer, think back to the last sermon you heard and ask yourself a couple of questions: ‘What do I remember from that sermon?’ and ‘How has my life changed as a result?’
I really must say right away that I totally appreciate the amount of time and energy that church leaders and others put into preparing and giving their messages. I am also privileged to be part of a church which has many members who are gifted public speakers, well able to present a clear and relevant message. But still… How much difference have those messages really made to my life? I’ve started taking notes in church meetings in an effort to make the message stick a bit more but it’s still a real struggle. Far too often, a talk at church goes in one ear and out of the other without really having much of an impact on the lump of brain matter in between.
Is it just me? Maybe it is, but I think not. If I’ve missed a Sunday church meeting then I’ll often ask a friend what happened at the meeting. Quite often they’ll say it was good and so-and-so gave a great talk. ‘Oh fab, what did they speak about?’ I’ll ask. ‘Hmm, let me think… yeah it was really good, but what did they talk about… Oh, I can’t remember.’ So what’s going on? Perhaps we don’t consciously remember what most talks were about but they still encourage and nurture us. Is that good enough, all we should expect? As I write this, I’m trying to think back over my years as a follower of Jesus to work out what events have had the most positive impact on me. It’s not sermons that come to mind, it’s friendships and shared experiences, and the example of spiritually mature friends who have inspired me to believe that I can follow in their footsteps.
I think the central place that the sermon has in our church meetings might be another thing that has wormed its way into our collective psyche (like wanting formal political influence has done for many parts of the modern church – see my last blog post) but was completely alien to the early church. Where does this idea that our church services ought to have a lengthy talk from a trained / qualified person come from? I’m very much a novice when it comes to early church history but when did the first people start becoming known for giving sermons? Third or fourth century AD? And looking at the New Testament, the church meetings written about in there all seem to stress learning from, encouraging, teaching and ministering to each other, not one or two specially trained people taking the lead. For sure, some have a gift of teaching but who’s to say the best way of using this gift is through a thirty minute sermon?