The church gathers for worship, instruction, and fellowship. We spoke about worship in the previous essay. Today I want to consider instruction. Christianity’s understanding of God and our duties to God is communicated in a story that must be told and told again. No one is born knowing the religious stories, traditions, and myths of their people. This is true even of religions based on the cycles and powers of nature. It is even truer of Christianity, which incorporates the history of Israel—of Abraham, Moses, David, and the prophets—into the New Testament story of Jesus and the teaching of the apostles. New converts and children must taught this big story and how to live within it. No one is released from the school of Christ except by death.
Instruction is all the more important in situations where Christians are a minority and the surrounding culture is pagan and hostile. The pagan story is told in the daily activities of commerce, law, entertainment, and education. If faith is to survive we must intentionally retreat to places where the Christian story is repeated and lived. The Christian household and the church gathering are the two most important places where this takes place. And in these two places we are often encouraged to develop a routine of individual Bible reading and study.
I’ve always had a near romantic view of preaching. As an undergraduate I took courses in preaching and as a graduate student I loved my course on the history of preaching. The prophets of Israel preached judgment and mercy to the people. Preaching and the sermon have always had a place in the life of the church. Jesus taught in the fields and in the synagogues. The apostles and early missionaries preached the gospel to Jews and gentiles wherever they could gather an audience, in the synagogues of the diaspora or on the Areopagus in Athens. After Christianity became the favored religion in the Roman Empire, such bishop orators as Gregory of Nazianzus, John Chrysostom, Ambrose, and Augustine preached many times a week to large audiences of new converts eager to learn about their new faith. There were some great preachers in the Middle Ages, Bernard of Clairvaux and Thomas Aquinas for example, but preaching did not return to its former glory until the Reformation.
In the Protestant Reformation, preaching became the central event of the church gathering. The people needed to be taught the story and meaning of the Bible. Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and others preached many times a week. The First Great Awakening in the mid Eighteenth Century, and the Second Great Awakening in the early Nineteenth Century revived and transformed preaching into its modern evangelistic form. In the view of many preaching theorists, nineteenth-century preaching reached its peak in Charles H. Spurgeon of London. Throughout all these changes, the sermon has remained the central event in Protestant church services.
At the risk of sounding like Jeremiah, allow me to express my concerns with the state of preaching and the sermon today. I am not speaking of every preacher and every sermon but of the general practice of preaching and audience expectations. In the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, the ideal preacher was highly educated in theology and the Bible, sermons were instructional, almost like academic essays, read word for word to the congregation. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—the age of Dwight Moody, Billy Sunday, and Billy Graham—things turned emotional and church music served as an emotional “warm-up” for the high energy evangelistic message. Today, if I’m not completely mistaken, the order has been reversed, with the sermon being a continuation of the music in the sense that the sermon must appeal to sentiment, begin with a clever hook, contain lots of stories, be marked by humorous moments, and be punctuated by pictures and movie clips. And of course, there a few Scripture quotations sprinkled throughout. In short, sermons need to be entertaining. Definitely not academic, complicated, and instructional.
What does this new audience expectation mean for the preacher and sermon preparation? It means that preachers spend what time they have left after doing their administrative duties searching the internet for hooks, movie clips, pictures, and stories rather than studying the Scriptures and meditating on how they apply to the people and the age. And for all that work, the modern sermon contains little instruction on the true scope and depth of the Christian faith. Nor does it really challenge the deep pagan myths that animate our post-Christian culture. Sometimes it unwittingly reinforces them.
Something has gone wrong with the church’s work of instruction. In my experience many church goers today are abysmally ignorant not only of the meaning of the Bible but even of its storyline. Hence they become easy prey for every “new” idea that hits the New York Times best seller list, the more mystical, speculative, and metaphysical the better. They unknowingly incorporate classic Gnostic, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, and Native American “wisdom” into their thinking not even realizing that these ideas contradict the Christian faith at its most fundamental level. It seems to me that they embrace these ideas primarily because they are interesting, exotic, stimulate their imaginations, and resonate with the rhetoric of progressive culture—inclusion, universality, diversity, tolerance, and individual liberty. No truth, no thought, no cross, and no judgment.
Listening to a twenty minute uplifting talk on Sunday mornings will not repair a half-century of neglect. We may have to do something more radical…like beginning a serious personal study of the Scriptures or gathering with a small group of serious-minded believers to read and discuss the Scriptures. Or, reading together and discussing some great Christian writers. Or, reading astute Christian critics of modern post-Christian culture. For me, buisness as usual is not an option.
Next Time: What is fellowship?