Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Is the Sunday Sermon Biblical?

I challenge you to search through both the Old and New Testaments and see if you can find any precedent for the Sunday morning sermon.

The preaching in the Old Testament was normally done by prophets and priests. However, these speeches were not regular. They were done only on certain occasions and often only when God had something to say to His people.  These "speeches" also allowed active participation and interruptions by the audience, including the preaching that was later done in the Jewish synagogues.

The preaching in the New Testament by Jesus and the apostles followed the same pattern. It was sporadic, took many forms, was delivered on special occasions to address certain problems, and also involved audience participation.  The every-member-functioning church we see in 1 Corinthians 14 was marked by interruptions as well. Never do you find a single person developing a weekly sermon that was given to a quiet, captive audience.

So where did the traditional sermon come from?  To find the answer we must go back to the fifth century Greeks. The sophists were a group of wandering teachers who were expert debaters at using emotional appeals and clever language to persuade people of their position.  As these sophists grew in popularity, they also grew in style, wearing special clothing and receiving lots of money for their work. They were the most distinguished men of their time, some even having statues erected in their honor.

Around the third century, as we already discussed, the Christian church began to be move from the home into buildings,  the service became institutionalized, and a hierarchical structure began to take root.   At that time, many pagan orators and philosophers were becoming Christian and thus naturally began to take on roles of early theologians and leaders of the Christian church. They began to use their Greek-Roman oratory skills for Christian purposes, and the sermon was born, a masterpiece of polished rhetoric, flowery eloquence, and strictly a monologue, devoid of listener participation.  The sermon became the privilege of church officials trained in schools to learn how to deliver it best.

Throughout the centuries Christian leaders have further raised the importance of the sermon to where it has become the center of the service today and the reason most people attend church.  The famous theologian, John Calvin, argued that the preacher was the "mouth of God".

So what? I like the sermon. I truly do. I look forward to it each Sunday. Through the years, I've heard some pretty good sermons! In fact, my husband and I have switched churches because a pastor who gave great sermons left.  The sermon is indeed the center of the service and why we attend.  But then I got to thinking. does the sermon really change me? Do sermons really cause Christians to grow in their faith?  If they do, then why do we have so many floundering Christians these days? Why are there so many who struggle with the same problems over and over?  I'm not saying the sermon never helps anyone. Just hearing the Word of God can definitely encourage, comfort, and spur someone to move in a better direction. But how much does it really help?

  • The sermon makes the preacher the main performer of the church, making the church a preaching station and relegates the congregation into a group of muted spectators.
  • The sermon stalemates spiritual growth by encouraging passivity
  • The sermon creates an unhealthy and unscriptural dependence on the pastor for one's Biblical knowledge
  • The sermon makes church distant and impersonal
  • The sermon does not equip the saints for their own ministry. This can only be done by experience and apprenticeship.
  • Some sermons can be very impractical, being more inspirational, feel-good, and lacking practical application.

Let's face it, very few Christians are transformed by weekly sermons. They may be inspired, they may even apply some of the things they learn, but it is only through personal, meaningful encounters with Jesus can anyone truly be changed. And those encounters rarely come during a sermon. They come in our private times with the Lord and also in personal and deep fellowship with other Christians.

(Taken from Pagan Christianity by Frank Viola and George Barna)


  1. Tues June 19th,
    "Morning, MaryLu."
    This is really thought-provoking, and so interesting. The six points you shared at the end of today's post, are unfortunately happening more often than not. And as 'some sermons' inspire, I agree that the only changes can come in a person 'through a personal and meaningful encounter with Jesus'.
    Thanks for sharing this with us MaryLu ... I am in agreement with it. Had never really pondered on 'how' the Sunday sermon came about.
    Take care, and, God Bless,
    In Him, Brenda Hurley

  2. I am about halfway through Viola's "Pagan Christianity" myself and am challenged on every page as to what I've accepted as "normal" Christianity, from the sermons to the buildings to the hierarchy. It's definitely making me think!

  3. Thanks Brenda. I never knew this stuff either. It's fascinating how all our traditions began.

    Niki, me too! What a challenging book! It's definitely changing the way I think.

  4. Good stuff again. So incredibly interesting. I just bought "Pagan Christianity" and its follow-up, "Reimagining Church" for my hubby - he's read "Pagan Christianity" before and quite enjoyed it. I find it so freeing to find out the reasons for the things we are used to doing. :)

  5. Interesting...

    I'm really just thinking out loud here. I DON'T actually enjoy the sermon much in my own church situation. But I don't know if I should throw out the baby with the bath water? The "participation" of many of the people in my church pews is not well-informed or edifying to others.

    Most preachers would probably point out that the sermon gives centrality to the Word of God. It's probably the easiest way of teaching dozens or even hundreds of people at once, although not the most personal or most effective by a long shot. As you say, the hands-on discipleship must take place in a smaller, more personalized setting In a Sunday morning-only culture, that probably rarely happens though. Just meditating...

  6. Caroline, I was thinking of buying Reimagining the Church and probably will soon. Let me know how you like it and Pagan.

    Diane, very interesting. The sermon is the only reason my hubby goes to church. He's really unsocial and isn't too much into the music but he wants to be stimulated by a good sermon. And I couldn't agree more that in the Sunday Morning service the type of fellowship needed for people to grow in Jesus just can't happen. I think the point they are making in this book is that they aren't seeing a lot of growth of Christians who merely go to church and rely on their Sunday morning service to help them be better disciples. The book Caroline bought above.. Remimagining Church supposedly has these authors' solution. Although I have a fair idea what it is. ;-) Thanks for your thoughts. :-)

  7. I am a little late at coming in on this discussion. But I really wanted to write some things out that I have been thinking about!

    I also am one who enjoy sermons. In fact, during the week, I tend to listen to several sermons by different preachers that have really encouraged me, and helped me to grow in faith and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. I agree with you, that much of Christianity has become a spectator sport, and it is very clear in the Bible that such should not be the case. It is really hard to find a preacher who is not afraid of preaching God’s word, and I mean really preach it. Just sitting in church listening to a sermon is not going to change anyone. But a local church in a whole, pastor included, should be encouraging each other, and holding one another accountable. Bible reading and prayer should be marks of a Christian, and the others in church should be helping and encouraging those do keep up with it. Christian parents should be discipline their children, and not just dumping them in Sunday school and thinking that is enough (part of the reason I am all for the whole family worshipping together in church). You just don’t find that anymore. I know I grew up going to church on Sunday, leave, and then repeat on the following Sunday. That isn’t going to help anyone, and it probably why we have so many nominal “Christians”, baby Christians (even though they have been a Christian for 20 or more years sometimes). I know I spent the first 20-21 years of my life in ignorant bliss of the Gospel, even though I grew up going to church. It is easy to fall into routines. Church is so much more than just Sunday and just the sermon. And we have fallen away from that, which is exactly what I think you were saying, haha. I have been talking daily with an online friend, and she has been a huge encouragement and she has helped me to see some of these things. I am currently searching for a new church in my new town and it is hard!

  8. Emma, thank you for your thoughts! I agree with you about some preachers. I have learned a tremendous amount from a few great Bible teachers, Derek Prince, being the major one. I must have a thousand of his tapes. So, there is something to be said for good Bible teaching. But I do believe that in order to really grow to be like Christ, we need close fellowship with other like-minded Christians. Something the early church did that we do not. Although small groups are starting to crop up in various churches.. at least that's a start in the right direction. I also agree that families should worship together!! Iron sharpens iron, right? That's why we need each other to grow. I pray you find a good church that encourages this.. they are rare these days.

  9. Love that this continues to be brought forward. Time for those who truly follow Christ to do so...
    thought you might like my post More 'Food for Thought' on this topic ~ EnJoy!

  10. Absolutely! Sharon.. You said it quite well in your post! How can we make disciples sitting in pews? That's not how the early church did things. I'm so glad to see other church leaders are talking about these issues!!