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Not Every Pastor’s a Teacher—Not Every Service Needs a Sermon

Billy_Sunday_preachesBy the time I was finished pastoring, I’d had enough. I’d spent five years writing and delivering a weekly 10–12-page theological paper in the form of a sermon—on top of my regular pastoral expectations.

There was a portion of my mind chewing on ideas all the time. I know it sounds silly to say, but a lot of that time I didn’t really feel present to more important things around me. I was always writing and re-writing in my head, and the urgency of next week’s message drowned out the importance of other things. On top of that, I was constantly strip mining my experiences for future use as sermon illustrations.

I’ll bet I’m not the only pastor who constantly woke from the same nightmare of showing up for a service completely unprepared.

The Problem with Preaching

There are definitely pastors who have worked harder, preached more, and with greater success than I did. I tip my hat to them. But the evangelical church revolves around the sermon as the central purpose for gathering, and it was during this period that I really began to question that strategy.

Here are some reasons I feel it might be time to grill the sacred cow of sermon-centered services.

1. Some gifted pastors are not gifted teachers.

In Ephesians 4:11, Paul talks about some of the gifts God has given to the church. Those giftings include pastors and teachers, and although you may have some mixture of both, it isn’t a necessity. Some incredible pastors who excel at soul care, crises management, and generally embodying Jesus to a community of believers, will never preach award-winning sermons.

One of the most important people in my life was a pastor I served with for 15 years. He wasn’t the greatest preacher. In fact, sometimes it was work to sit through his messages. But he was Jesus to me and he forever left a mark on my soul. His strength wasn’t in public preaching, but he had truly become a living expression of the Word to me.

Sadly, when you ask someone what their shepherd is like, they’ll inevitably respond by summing up their pastor’s preaching style.

2. Many churches are run by charismatic teachers who are not pastors.

Another cost of making the sermon the service’s centerpiece are the pastors who are just not gifted shepherds.  I’ve been to many churches with skilled teachers who run the church more like a manager or CEO than a pastor. In one church I went to for a while, the charismatic teacher would leave out the back door the moment the sermon was over.

Now, a smart person in this position can surround himself with gifted pastors to compensate for their areas of weakness. But do we have to call these teachers pastors? The word pastor denotes an expectation of personal interest and spiritual friendship—it’s confusing when that formative relationship is absent.

When you think of pastors that are elevated to the level of celebrity, it’s for their teaching ability not their Christlike service to their congregations.

3. Information is not the sole consideration for spiritual formation.

When our gathering is focused on preaching every week, we’re communicating that information is what is going to change hearts. It’s true that the renewing of our mind is an important part of our transformation (Rom. 12:1), but a weekly monologue is not necessarily the only or best way to make that happen.

Many evangelical churches do not make service and sacraments a regular part of their gatherings, and in place of them make a sermon the chief element of grace. As important as the Word is to our transformation, so is the temptation for knowledge to puff up (1 Cor. 8:1).

There are other important ways to get the Word into people’s lives: public readings,  group discussion and Bible studies, memorization, song, and more. It’s an enculturated and not biblical view that says that preaching is God’s chief way to minister the Word.

4.  Preaching is often more about interpretation than it is about the Word.

Looking back over 20+ years of preaching, there are definitely sermons I am ashamed of. As I have grown, I look back on some of my messages and shudder. There have been churches full of people who have sat through bullshit and opinion that, at the time, I was thoroughly convinced was God’s Word. Sometimes it was just popular christianese trends and the ideas of others that I was spouting.

Maybe I’m the only one. Maybe there isn’t another pastor out there that wouldn’t take back certain messages. It doesn’t matter, I have attended enough churches in my life to know that a lot of what passes for preaching the Word, isn’t.

I am not just talking about cultic, bad churches either—I’m talking about perfectly good churches. It’s fine and to be expected, but it’s too human for us to pretend like it’s a weekly sacrament that God demands.

There are a million pastors who would read this and say to themselves, “Not at my church. We preach the Word at my church.” But they wouldn’t all be right . . .

5. We place too high a premium on good messages

If I hear another person tell me they’re leaving their church because they’re “not getting fed,” I may lose my mind. The truth is that our exaltation of the sermon places a premium on finding the church with the best possible sermons for you.

The Spirit-imbued body of believers is the focus of our gatherings—not sermons. One thing that makes me crazy about the way we have elevated sermons is how much energy we spend after a service criticizing the message.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy preaching

I still preach about four times a year and attend a church where the sermon is still the focus of the service. I think messages can be a wonderful part of our gathering. I just don’t think pastors should be expected to excel at it, and I don’t think it needs to be the focus of every gathering.

What kinds of things could we do differently?

  • What if we allowed more teaching to be done by gifted, congregational teachers?
  • What if we focused our gatherings on other forms of body life like prayer, worship (not necessarily contemporary), responsive readings, longer readings of Scripture, art, sharing, prayer walks, service, *gasp* silence, or other expressive forms?
  • What if we freed pastors up to actually be more involved as incarnational representations of Jesus among us?

I have brought this up to enough friends that I know many are not going to agree with me. I’d love to talk about it in the comments.

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21 Comments Post a comment
  1. I’ve often felt guilty about occasionally nodding off during a sermon, but that’s less about the content of the speech and more about the style and delivery (it’s the writer in me). In any case, I put more stock on going to church every Sunday for reciting the Lord’s Prayer and celebrating the Eucharist with my brothers and sisters in Christ. A good or bad sermon really doesn’t affect my mood about the Church one way or the other.

    March 18, 2014
  2. Reblogged this on Strictly Thanksgiving and commented:
    Kinda sums up what I have been trying to challenge others to think about and reflect on. Isn’t the service supposed to be a time simply dedicated to God in worship? Or at least I think that’s the essence of it. Not worship only in the form of music, but in the form of the different things built into the service by tradition… At least for our church.. Not the most traditional in Singapore, but considered traditional by most standards. A Chinese Anglican Church – well I suppose there’s always so much more beauty to it than what meets the eye, even as the Chinese language is starting to die in the hearts of Singapore youth, but for our youth, it is this culture that we hold onto, and grow up in, and will want to bring our families into when we are all old and grown up. We may not speak the language, but we really try to pursue God and bring Him to the students of the mission school we are planted in. Or, I am the only one….but I really don’t think so. 🙂

    But hey, I am just afraid in looking at good worships, good sermons, we lose sight of God.

    Thank God for my rather rigid church, sometimes so frustrating it makes people want to leave, but so beautiful at the very heart of it. The only place I will call home. May pursuing You be what we chase everyday.

    March 19, 2014
  3. It’s a very interesting theory, albeit a biblical one. I’d be curious to see a church work like that. On one one, I think that if a pastor is going to get up and speak every/most every week, he ought to be a good speak or learn how to be one. He doesn’t have to be the most charismatic or powerful teacher ever made, but if his speaking is going to be a regular thing, he need to learn how to do it well. Many good messages are lost when the speaker can’t find the words to communicate them, or perhaps speaks in a monotone that sends people to dreamland.

    March 19, 2014
    • Every liturgical church works like that, and I know of a lot of newer churches that aren’t placing the emphasis on preaching at the center of their gatherings.

      March 19, 2014
  4. danwaits #

    OH MY GOSH!!! OH MY GOSH!!! OH MY GOSH!!! OH MY GOSH!!! OH MY GOSH!!! OH MY GOSH!!! OH MY GOSH!!! OH MY GOSH!!! OH MY GOSH!!! OH MY GOSH!!! OH MY GOSH!!! OH MY GOSH!!! OH MY GOSH!!! OH MY GOSH!!! OH MY GOSH!!! OH MY GOSH!!! OH MY GOSH!!! OH MY GOSH!!! OH MY GOSH!!! OH MY GOSH!!! OH MY GOSH!!! OH MY GOSH!!! OH MY GOSH!!! OH MY GOSH!!! OH MY GOSH!!! OH MY GOSH!!! OH MY GOSH!!! OH MY GOSH!!! OH MY GOSH!!! OH MY GOSH!!! OH MY GOSH!!! OH MY GOSH!!! OH MY GOSH!!! OH MY GOSH!!! OH MY GOSH!!! OH MY GOSH!!! OH MY GOSH!!! OH MY GOSH!!! OH MY GOSH!!! OH MY GOSH!!! OH MY GOSH!!! OH MY GOSH!!! OH MY GOSH!!! OH MY GOSH!!! OH MY GOSH!!!
    you just said EVERYTHING I’ve EVER thought about preaching!!!
    For 27 years I was a music minister in the United Methodist Church. Since the turn of the century I’ve been a 20something pastor.
    I’m not a preacher, nor am I all that hot a speaker. I FINALLY stumbled (God-led?) into the idea that I didn’t have to speak each week at our 20something ministry. I got my friends & acquaintances who were good at talking to come & speak.
    I’ve always felt a little looked down on because I’m not “the voice” of our 20ministry. But ya know what, once I started having different people in, the attendance got a whole lot better!
    As I look toward new ministry in the place we now live, this article has freed me up even more to pursue the directions in which I feel led.
    THANK YOU!!! THANK YOU!!! THANK YOU!!! THANK YOU!!! THANK YOU!!! THANK YOU!!! THANK YOU!!! THANK YOU!!! THANK YOU!!! THANK YOU!!! THANK YOU!!! THANK YOU!!! THANK YOU!!! THANK YOU!!! THANK YOU!!! THANK YOU!!! THANK YOU!!! THANK YOU!!! THANK YOU!!! THANK YOU!!! THANK YOU!!! THANK YOU!!! THANK YOU!!!
    THANK YOU!!! for this article & for the courage you had to publish it!

    March 19, 2014
    • I actually chuckled in bed this morning when I read this. Thanks for the comment! It did take a bit of courage to press “Publish” on this. I am glad I did.

      March 19, 2014
      • danwaits #

        in bed? 😉

        March 26, 2014
  5. I like what you say. And I agree. great post.

    March 19, 2014
  6. This is so gently but throughly put. I love that when you write you don’t tear things down but open questions to help open minds to live a bigger and more full picture of the abundant life Jesus promised. It’s not like you’re trying to replace one tradition for another but making it possible for more parts of the body to live and thrive and worship. Nicely done.

    March 19, 2014
  7. Cindee Nebeker #

    Maybe we should let preachers preach and have pastors pastor. People seem to have made those two jobs synonymous but they are two different things…

    March 19, 2014
  8. froginparis #

    I was on my mobile last night for whatever the reason, wordpress does not like my android. I have so many thoughts about this it is difficult to herd them into a single stream, but here is the feeble attempt:

    After high school I walked away from the idea of “church.” I had so many questions that a single man preaching a sermon could never address: suicide, abuse, spiritual abuse, proper order in marriage, mental health, role of woman within the body… Still, I sat in attendance and wrestled with it all. I craved the community of discussion. To have the ability to ask the theological questions my faith so needed answers to in order to thrive. Women’s Biblestudy leaders would shake their heads at me and tisk tisk my questions. Men pastors would only talk to me in public. Every time I approached them, their eyes would shift nervously.

    In college I stumbled upon InterVarsity and felt at home. A place of community discussion. There was a period of lecture, but also discussion. Different denominations filled with different perspectives helped me to build a bridge. Since that time, Bible Study Fellowship, Community Bible Study and other cross denominational gatherings have felt the most at home for me.

    Their caveat:This isn’t Church. You need to belong to a proper body.”

    Problem was, in a proper church, I felt like a bunion. Sitting in a chair, struggling to obey the cultural norms. Drowning and choking, struggling to find fellowship.

    Your words breath affirmation. A teacher has his place. Up in front, like a college professor. But pastoring, the ability for those to gather in discussion to ask the ugly questions and find answers, that would be the full Body of Christ.

    March 19, 2014
  9. Interesting thoughts! My church basically lets our head pastor focus on preaching (which he is VERY good at) and farms out the care/community stuff to the support pastors and elders. I think it’s a good model for the staff, but doesn’t always work out so great for the congregation. :\

    March 19, 2014
  10. I would love for churches to be more community-centered than sermon-centered. The problem is, that format seems incredibly difficult to break out of. Sermon-centered services seem to just herd people through a pre-designed program; if you want community, there’s the 5 minutes after service when you’re rushing to pick your kids up from the nursery–or cell group on some other day. I’m lucky to speak to more than 2 people on any given Sunday.

    March 19, 2014
    • April, my thoughts and experiences exactly. It’s funny, but without a single command or example in the NT for sermon-centered services, evangelicalism still holds to it.
      April, you forgot one big example of community in the service: when the pastor says to turn and greet the person next to you for 30 seconds! 😉

      March 20, 2014
  11. This is wonderful, Jayson! And you know what? You’re not alone. There are many of us who have come to the same conclusions. Some, like me, have even come to a completely different understanding of ecclesiology.
    My first several years of being a Christian were spent in circles where the sermon was almost worshipped. The pastor would preach that the Sunday service wasn’t the only time for worship and that we should extend it throughout the whole week, which many interpreted as endlessly listening to sermon tapes (and later mp3′s), passing them around to friends, etc.
    One of my churches held so highly to the sermon that the pastor spent all week preparing. How could a pastor be an example for the flock to follow if we only even saw him for the 45 minutes he was in the pulpit? Keep asking questions and don’t be afraid of the Holy Spirit.

    March 20, 2014
  12. BAM! Insightful, honest and, more than anything, dead on correct. I particularly appreciated point number 3. Thank you.
    http://www.darianburns.com

    March 20, 2014
  13. I’ve been thinking about this very thing lately since we’ve visited a few different churches who do things very differently. I’ve always looked for a church with a great preacher (and one that places an emphasis on service). But lately I’ve been wondering–since when is church about me anyways? Should I be there to learn, or should I be there to worship? Still thinking this over.

    March 25, 2014

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