Saturday, August 22, 2009

Do we need a weekly sermon in church?

Another way to ask this question, "Do we need a single person, usually a trained minister, to regularly preach, on a weekly basis, to a congregation?" In the recent issue of Searching Together (Word of Life Church, PO Box 377, Taylors Falls, MN 55084), a Christian magazine edited by a friend of mine, a case is made by David Norrington (author of To Preach or Not to Preach, Paternoster Press, 1996) against having a regular weekly sermon by a single person, usually a minister, as the "norm" of church practice. Instead of such a regularly defined and proscribed practice, the author would vote for a more "dialogical," whole-body, or congregational style of learning together. He believes that the basis for the "sermon" being the main attraction for a Sunday service has no clear New Testament support, nor was it the norm for church gatherings for the first two centuries. Along with the institutionalism of the church came the single paid minister preaching a Sunday-by-Sunday sermon to passive numbers of people.

In this issue of Searching Together, Norrington takes on his reviewers (15 of them), who were greatly negative. Since this discussion took place in Great Britain, little North American church press has been given to the matter. Such British notables in the Christian academic and church world as Ian Stackhouse, J.F. Dunn, Andrew Davies and such magazines as The Banner of Truth and Reformed Theological Journal have given mostly negative and critical reviews. The weekly sermon has become a staple for churchgoers for a long time, and certainly since the Reformation for the Protestant church. This sermon is usually preached by the stated, regular, paid minister of a local church. While guest speakers and so forth may occupy the pulpit the FORM is a one-way, information directed, message given by a single person to a group of people, who are usually passive during the message.

Norrington's view has been criticized as a man who has an axe to grind against expository preaching. His response has been to say that no one has dealt with the New Testament and early church evidence he gives. His thesis is that "in the early church meetings, we see a practical outworking of the priesthood of all believers in which every member contributes freely, maturing and developing gifts and skills to be used for the benefit of all both within and without the meeting (1 Cor. 14:23-40). This paradigm is evident everywhere in the NT (cf. Heb. 3:13; 10:24-25; 1 Pet. 4:7-11). Indeed, the NT provides no other pattern. The notion that these gatherings regularly featured just one speaker and a passive audience is, as E. Schweitzer observes, 'completely foreign to the New Testament." (p. 52 of his book)

Sounds like an Anabaptist diatribe against the institutional church, doesn't it? Norrington is not, however, an Anabaptist, and the Word of Life Church is not a traditional, Anabaptist church in the Mennonite or Amish tradition. As a matter of fact, this magazine has heralded writers from the Reformed or Calvinistic camp many times. But, true to form, Norrington fits this church's belief that the true church is like a house-church with a more open-ended, community-led dialogue and interpretation of Scripture than the average evangelical church practices in North America.

There are many points for me to make. First, Norrington and a number of other evangelical writers have pointed to the tragedy of the typical Protestant institutional church today. Although there are some sterling exceptions, for the most part it is weak, irrelevant, ignored by the unChristian world, and mostly concerned for itself and its own theology and traditions. And I say this as a churchman and minister for over 30 years! Norrington's addition to the criticism of the institutional church is not surprising or earth shattering.

Second, I fully believe and teach a "gifts-oriented" church ministry. I believe, practice and promote a full-orbed, priesthood of all believers, one-body-with-many-necessary-parts type of ministry. I consult with a number of churches and ministers across a wide variety of denominations, and having a "gifts-oriented" ministry is a necessary part of a healthy, growing church. This is not new either.

Third, if the practice of a single Sunday morning sermon actually helps, rather than hinders, corporate involvement and ministry, what is the practical problem with it? Norrington, again along with many others, believes that such a monologue type of teaching is mostly ineffective. Current teaching theory and group psychology would agree with his premise. But theological and biblical illiteracy is rampant, and the declarative form of teaching is still an accepted way to communicate information. Sure, maybe it's not the best "group-learning" method out there, but it is compact, reproducible and has a place in the overall learning scheme. I would be careful not to "throw out the baby with the bath water" here.

Fourth, the desire and drive to "get back" to the New Testament church form and function is a frustratingly fruitless enterprise. And, I don't believe it is possible. What is possible and mandated is to teach and apply the universal principles from the New Testament and the whole Bible to modern people, times and circumstances. It is the Word of God that is binding, not the forms around which that Word functioned. There is a difference between "form" and "function" to be applied here.

Fifth, let's revitalize and revolutionalize the Sunday sermon! Preachers need to learn to be better spokespeople for the Gospel of Christ. People in the pew need to take more of an active role and part in the Sunday services and communication of the Word of God. Principles of group learning need to be studied and applied at the local congregational level. More and more people would agree with these assertions and suggestions. The Sunday sermon then still has a place, maybe not a New Testament mandated bibically required place, but a place nonetheless in communicating the Word of God today and in the future.