Sermon-less Church: A Thought ExperimentJacob Prahlow 2018-01-17
“If you took away the sermon from your worship service, what sort of theology could you construct from what remains?”
Sometime back, a Facebook friend shared this quote from Pastor Mark Jones and it got me thinking. What would a sermon-less church service look like? What messages and theology would it convey? Would we attend? Just how central is the sermon to Christian worship?
In order to really consider this question, consider the state of the sermon in American Christianity today.
A Word on Sermons
First, in much of contemporary American Christianity, the sermon reigns supreme on Sunday mornings. Regardless of their theology, disposition, or denomination, most church services center around a sermon. In Autopsy of a Deceased Church, Thom Rainer notes that one of the major reasons that first-time visitors return to a church is their comfort with and acceptance of the preacher and his message. The largest and fastest-growing churches in America tend to have captivating pastors who deliver relevant and memorable messages.1 For better or for worse, the sermon stands at the heart of American Christian worship.
Second, it’s worth noting that sermons have not always been the central focus of Christian worship. In fact, for many Christians around the world, sermons are not the central focus—the celebration of the Eucharist is primary. The contemporary focus on sermons is, in large part, a byproduct of the Protestant Reformation’s emphasis on Scripture, which led to an increased focus on proclaiming the Bible from the pulpit.
Third—as hard as it may be for evangelical readers to believe—sermons have not always been long in duration. I have heard many a preacher joke about how the Apostle Paul set the precedent for giving long sermons in Acts 20:7-12, where Eutychus fell asleep listening to Paul and dropped to his apparent death, only to have Paul restore him to health. Whatever the reason Luke included this story in Acts, it is doubtful he intended it to serve as a model for preachers to speak to their congregations for 45, 60, or 120 minutes on Sunday mornings. Sermons vary in length considerably, not only from church to church but, in many cases, from Sunday to Sunday.
I make these three points to underscore a crucial reality about American Christianity: the importance, function, and style of sermons vary among Christians, although you can hear one in nearly every church each Sunday. But without the sermon, what do Sunday morning services offer attendees?
What Else Do We Have?
Even for the most sermon-centered churches, Sunday morning worship typically includes singing, prayer, and what I’ll call “business”—namely, offerings and announcements. At the risk of over-generalizing, I contend that these aspects of Sunday mornings do teach theology, albeit less formally (and obviously) than sermons.
Singing praises to God goes back to the time of Ancient Israel, where various authors composed Psalms. The psalms run the gamut of emotions and expression to God—everything from heartfelt praise to gut-wrenching agony, from adoration for blessing to despair and loneliness fill these songs. The psalms teach many lessons, perhaps none more important that we can bring all of our human emotions and problems to the Creator of the universe. So also, many of today’s expressions of singing and worship speak honestly to God. I am often the first to criticize the repetitive nature of many contemporary worship songs (I’m looking at you, Chris Tomlin). Yet even poorly written songs with inarticulate theology can—with the right heart orientation—help us seek God and sing his praises.
Christians also pray in their Sunday services—and his too varies across denominations. Some churches pray through ornately written compositions, petitions to God filled with theology, adoration, and supplication for all manner of request and need. Other churches pray more spontaneously, guided (in the best of moments) by the Holy Spirit. Prayer looks different from church to church, but it’s a powerful teaching tool in every congregation—how we come before God, and how we speak to the Almighty, say much about who we think he is and what he has done.
Almost all churches also have a business portion of their services—usually the collection of offerings and announcements of upcoming events. These may seem the most mundane aspects of a sermon-less church service, but they too teach. Consider just two implicit questions raised with every passing of the plate: How important is offering a portion of our money to God? Where does the money go and what does it do? Some churches have budgets that stretch into the millions (dozens of staff and enormous campuses cost money), where others are less than $100,000 each year. The collection of offerings—and that which is said and done along with it—reveals much about a church and its theology.
The other business aspect of Sunday mornings are the announcements. Through my years of visiting various churches, I’ve found that the announcement portion of the service often reveals the most about the character and priorities of a local congregation. There are churches that highlight one or two things and rely on bulletins or technology to say the rest; and there are churches that spend twenty minutes detailing every aspect of upcoming events. Both these approaches—and everything in between—reveal something about the life of the church outside of Sunday mornings and the vitality of the community of people who call that church home.
Through singing, prayer, and the business side of church services, Christians learn and experience a great deal. Of course, there are other aspects of Christian practice regularly practiced in many churches—the sacraments being the most obvious and important. It’s a different conversation, however, to delve into what Eucharist, baptism, or confession teach, and so I’ll leave those subjects for another day.
We could also talk about the non-Sunday messages that our churches send. People pay attention not only to what Christians do on Sundays, but what they do on the other six days of the week. While Sunday worship remains an integral part of Christian faith and practice, there is much to learn from the Bible studies, service projects, small groups, children’s programming, youth groups, and pastoral care that churches support.
Would the Church Survive Without Sermons?
To return to our guiding question—if you took away the sermon from your worship service, what sort of theology could you construct from what remains?—I suggest that, despite the prominent role that sermons play in the Christian Church today, sermon-less Christianity doesn’t look all that bad. Certainly, the theological education that people receive outside of the Sunday morning sermon is a different sort than that delivered from the pulpit. But for many churches, singing, prayer, and business (along with the sacraments and non-Sunday activities) form a powerful, communal, and practical means of instructing people in the particulars of the Christian life.
One implication of this reflection is to remind churches of their need to (re)consider what they are teaching their people and their communities through their non-sermon activities. What sort of theology does your church’s worship convey? Are your Sunday morning prayers leading people to fellowship with God? What does your practice of announcements reveal about the priorities of your congregation? Does your non-Sunday programming coordinate or contrast with what you preach on Sundays?
Would the church survive without sermons? Certainly (Matt. 16:18). But a sermon-less church would require a bit more reflection and intentionality than many church-goers are used to. Perhaps that would be a good thing.
1 See the research compiled by Warren Bird at Leadership Network.
Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.