Sermons Aren’t Everything

Preachers, welcome to 2020!

At a minimum, if you are responsible for preaching or teaching in your congregation, you have fifty-two weekly gathering opportunities to craft a worship experience for your congregation. That translates to a lot of sermons. Even if we subtract holidays such as Easter and Christmas and other special Sundays dictated by your congregation’s traditions, that still leaves more than forty sermons to create during the year.

I know a few people who started mapping out a fifty-two-week plan for 2020 last September. I am in awe of their planning prowess. I know others who organize their schedule in quarters. Still others (like me!) might be only a sermon series ahead in terms of a planning schedule. Regardless of our planning rituals, we all have the same weekly obligation to bring a word from the Word to the people in our care.

“So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out.” Romans 12:1-2 (MSG)

The way of Jesus is the way of transformation. It’s change “from the inside out,” as Eugene Petersen conveys in The Message. As preachers and teachers, we are partners with the Spirit in the patient work of nurturing spiritual transformation. Even so, the reality is that we are not created to learn in the way that most of us have been trained to make disciples. Simply telling people what they need to know and how to think about Jesus and God’s mission for creation is the least effective way to teach people the true richness of the Good News. As preachers and teachers, we are partners with the Spirit in the patient work of nurturing spiritual transformation. Click To Tweet

Adult education pioneer Malcolm Knowles noted the following observations. Adults learn best when:

  1. They understand why something is important to know or do.
  2. They have the freedom to learn in their own way.
  3. Learning is experiential.
  4. The time is right for them to learn.
  5. The process is positive and encouraging.

Observations number 1 and 5 describe the way many congregations operate. People who routinely come to weekly worship gatherings are convinced that connecting with God and their faith community are vital parts of life in Christ. They understand why it’s important. The church can be a positive and encouraging environment for growth when she’s functioning at her best. Knowles’s fourth observation lies clearly outside of our control. The right timing is solely the work of the Spirit.

But it’s easy to discern the incongruence between the typical adult church experience and Knowles’s observations 2 and 3. The preacher’s work of orienting people to a Kingdom perspective in the face of competing, cultural worldviews can make the concepts of freedom and experiential learning seem impossible to manifest in a brief, Sunday morning service.

Despite our best efforts and earnest prayers for God to work, we preachers and teachers often find ourselves transferring information instead of nurturing transformation. This struggle isn’t new. Research has told us this. Our revered spiritual formation mentors like Nouwen and Willard and Rohr have told us this. Sermons aren’t irrelevant; they just aren’t everything. If we are intent on leading our folks toward Kingdom transformation, we would do well to consider alternative ways to shape at least a few of those forty weeks of worship experiences in 2020. Sermons aren’t irrelevant; they just aren’t everything. Click To Tweet

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

Host a “Conversermon”

At our Sunday gatherings I describe the “conversermon” as an opportunity for holy listening. “Conversermons” are a cross between group testimonies and panel discussions. I chose to use the term “conversermon” (borrowed from another church) because it helped to frame the thinking of those who are wary of anything outside of the traditional sermon.

There are three keys to an impactful “conversermon”:

1. The topic: This isn’t simply a debate or an information transfer experience. This format has been the most useful when considering the shape of a faithful response to the injustice in the world. Our most impactful “conversermons” bring the personal stories of those who have given care-full thought AND action to living like Jesus in situations often not talked about in church. Examples of topics we have covered included criminal justice, racism, refugees/immigration, voting, and poverty/money. It’s important to note that we work hard to create a local context for discussing faithfulness in these matters.

2. The panel: We don’t limit panelists to “experts”; in fact, it’s important that the congregation have the opportunity to hear from those who are fellow everyday congregants driven by the Spirit to faithfulness in a certain area. For example, our criminal justice “conversermon” included a retired police officer, a small business owner committed to hiring returning citizens (ex-offenders), and a stay-at-home mom committed to monitoring the work of judges with respect to restorative justice. These ordinary people shared the ups and downs and the community impact of their walk with Jesus with our congregation. The result is that more people find themselves considering how they might engage with the struggle in their own communities.

3. The intention: Most days we set up our “conversermon” chairs with the communion elements before us as a symbol of what unites us. The message (I hope) is clear: this isn’t just a debate or a conversation about partisan soundbites. This is an effort to lean into the life of Jesus together, in word AND deed.

Break the (Unspoken) Rules of Your Space

Humans are creatures of habit. We are hardwired for predictability. Buildings don’t speak, and yet, they do directly reflect our need for predictability. The unspoken rules are clear when you walking into most churches: sit down, face front, and be quiet. Ironically these unspoken rules are written into “flexible”, multi-purpose, spaces too.

The first time I attended a worship service (that I wasn’t leading) with a built-in, break-the-rules disruption, the preacher ended his sermon with a question: “Any questions?” I suppose I shouldn’t have been shocked but I was. The unspoken rules of the building were clear: face front and keep quiet; what’s most important was happening up front, and individual questions weren’t important—until the preacher made it clear that they were. Other ideas for breaking the rules include:

Let folks to talk to each other: This is more than just a moment of passing the peace. Instead, consider inviting the congregation to share a story with the person next to them that relates to the Scripture focus for the day.
• Meet in a different space: If you have a fellowship hall or a yard, consider changing the venue for a week (or more). What might happen if your congregants met in a less formal space? Around tables? Outside in the park?
• Get out of your seat: In the spirit of an old fashioned “concert of prayer”—typically led from the pulpit—consider arranging experiential prayer stations around the sanctuary and giving your congregants an opportunity to reflect at each one, at their own pace.

Take a Walk

For some congregations, faith-based, community-related activities fall outside of the weekly worship experiences. They instead become special activities or the focus of a small group. But sometimes an effective worship service disrupts our comfortable behavior patterns. Imagine your members showing up to find brooms, rubber gloves, and garbage bags at the altar. Or imagine giving your congregants a choice about what “feels like church” with an option (or two) on the table for leaving the sanctuary (such as prayer walking or feeding the homeless).

Churches in socio-economically challenged areas tend to have more urgency about ministering to the community surrounding their facility. But even congregations in affluent areas need to step outside of their buildings as an act of worship. Sometimes a small disruption in routine will allow congregants to see God at work in ways they’ve been blind to in their weekly, find-my-parking-spot-and-get-to-my-seat ritual.

Here’s a 2020 challenge for those of us responsible for shaping weekly worship: commit four Sundays to interacting with your congregation and the Word in experiential, transformative ways.

Now it’s your turn. Have you attended or led an alternative or experiential worship service? Have you found other ways to engage the Word without a sermon on Sunday morning?  I invite you to share links and descriptions in the comments.

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