The other day I was asked by a friend if I was getting any preaching opportunities at the moment. No, not really, I replied. That must be disappointing for you, they wondered. Again, no, not really, I replied: I’m actually less-and-less satisfied with preaching as a form of communication; less comfortable with hearing only one voice; more inclined towards conversation, discussion, arriving at understanding of what God is calling a given community to be and do communally. Yes, they replied, I can see that that would fit you.
It is well documented that the monologue is an ineffective form of communication, engaging, as it does, only one of our five senses. And so preachers have added-on PowerPoint, to engage the eyes at the same time as the ears; and jokes, to warm the audience to them…essentially tinkering with the sermon format, to improve it. When perhaps it needs ditching altogether…
I know that is hard for preachers to give up preaching. Sometimes, I quite like preaching. I especially like preaching sermons that are longer than expected, so as to stretch the listeners; or shorter than expected, so as to cheat them. I might preach sermons that are so-dense-that-you-cannot-possibly-follow-the-full-address-and-are-forced-to-give-up-trying-so-that-hopefully-in-that-resignation-you-will-hear-God-speak-and-not-my-words; and sermons that are so simple that even an adult can follow them.
But there are no sermons, as we know sermons, in the Bible (though there’s this thing we call The Sermon on the Mount, that we preach sermon-series on). And there aren’t sermons as we know them today through most of the history of the Church. The sermon is a Modern, educational, form; coming to its peak, perhaps, in the celebrity preachers of the Victorian era, such as Spurgeon. There are a variety of other ways in which the Bible has been retold – in parable, in story, in stained-glass window, and art, and architecture, to name but a few. Stained-glass embraced the culture of its day, its available technology and [pre-literate] approach to interpreting the world; and we, in turn, must embrace the technology [digital?] and interpretive framework [iconic? non-linear? post-post-literate?] of our culture…
I want to be part of a community that locates itself within the history of God’s engagement with humanity; that stands in continuity with his family; that familiarises itself with its own story. I’m not convinced that we need to hear God through one or two people alone; that if we listen to more voices the Holy Spirit will get too confused to lead us into all truth. I’m not sure that, even in the bigger-sized expressions of church, things would get out-of-control – not out of the Holy Spirit’s control, at any rate. I don’t think that the sermon should be banned; but I don’t want to deliver one very often; and I don’t want to listen to someone else deliver one very often either.
Much has been written in defence of sermons, often setting-out a case that if we lose the art of the sermon we will no longer look-to the Bible or effectively communicate God’s values. But this is a doubly-flawed concept: not only are there other ways of communicating our understanding of God’s values; but, the sermon, increasingly, does not communicate what its champions intend to communicate at all. Its long-held dominance is, increasingly, an alien cultural form – and if we want to honour the great preachers of the past, and stand in continuity with them, we need to embrace and pioneer alternative means of doing what they have done.
emerging church , contextualisation , preaching , sermons