This essay is aimed at the American evangelical audience, or those among them still able to think clearly about the world around them. It assumes an entire subculture and vocabulary which, if you are not acquainted with, may make the article unreadable. Like all writings on this site, this page is subject to revision.
Last revised: January 12, 2020
The intent of this essay is to explain what seems to me to be wrong with what we do on Sunday morning. In doing so, I believe it can help you to identify the most important unnoticed characteristics of our church services.
On Sunday morning, my church has a worship service. The worship service follows an entirely predictable pattern: There is a certain amount of singing; a certain amount of public reading of Bible passages, creeds or good theological summaries; and then there is a sermon. Following this is the much-less-emphasized wrap-up at the end, which includes the announcements, offering, and notably, the Lord’s Supper. Of course, the order could be changed somewhat, without breaking the pattern. There could be more singing before the sermon, more singing after the sermon, or some elements (the Lord’s Supper, most commonly) could be removed from the service entirely put into a different service or only observed occasionally. None of these changes would break the pattern of the service.
By far the largest section of the service (at my church) is the sermon. I, being who I am and thinking what I think, have no problem with long sermons. I wish we could all spend much more time than 30-60 minutes a week listening to Christian teaching. In fact, I think we all should be spending much more time doing so. Herein lies the first hurdle: There is (effectively) no other general teaching of the church. There are other times when teaching happens, but never with either the same degree of reach or the same apparent speaking-for-the-church weight. This service is where the most church members (and leaders!) show up (and give apparent assent to whatever is said). It is also where most visitors will show up to find out what is happening at this church. The Sunday morning service is the basic way people encounter the church, and the sermon is the core information-content of the service. There is no other similarly-central teaching the church can possibly do, without upending this basic organization.
Of course, many evangelical churches hardly have anything that could reasonably be called a sermon. This is likely the majority of churches who would call themselves
“evangelical,” which speaks volumes about the ordinary interests, priorities, and even the attention span of evangelicals. Even in such churches, the Sunday morning service (or, occasionally in a daring, radical, tradition-upending change the Sunday afternoon service) is the defining church-event, and the message of the church becomes whatever the closest-approximation of a sermon happens to be. I am not saying that the sermon is central because it is a sermon. I am saying that the central message of an evangelical church is always in its worship service, and that (by default) the largest amount of talking that happens in the service takes over as the primary statement made by the church.
There is, of course, the Sunday School hour. In many ways, this is probably a more worthwhile teaching time, at least for the people it is aimed at, and on the limited topics covered. It is not aimed at me, however. Of course I am assuming here that (with any ordinary teacher) no one lesson can possibly aim at everyone, and also that there are not a wide enough range of lessons to be aimed at everyone. I am also saying that, in my particular church, I am one of those left-over at the end, once all of the classes aimed at certain sorts of people are put together. This is not surprising, but it is important, and more will need to be said about this later on; the particular groups targeted by adult Sunday School classes do not, as a rule, make much sense and for much more important reasons than leaving people like me out in the cold.
I am not saying that Sunday School is bad. It does some good, for some people. It probably does quite a lot of good, for some people. It is probably one of the most important things helping to hold hold back the rising tide of biblical illiteracy in the United States. I am not saying Sunday School is bad. I am saying that it is not adequate, and that it is not the public voice of the church.
There are also small groups. The valuable element in the environment of (small) Sunday School classes of working through issues, questions, and teachings at the level of the learners is also present here, at least potentially. In my experience, however, “teaching” is not really present at small groups, and there is still no time or opportunity available to work through any of the major issues, as a group (though it may be easiest to speak to an individual, here). In any case, I am not saying that having a small group is bad. I am saying it is not adequate, and that anything that happens in a small group is not the public voice of the church.
This then, is my first claim: There is no general teaching of the church, other than the sermon.
Why should this matter, though, that only the Sunday Morning sermon is the public voice of the church? Perhaps Christians could all afford to understand better what the Bible actually says, but isn’t that always true? What does it matter here, specifically? It matters because sometimes we get things wrong. Sometimes we get things wrong, and we don’t – and can’t! – fix it.
What I mean is very simple. The way we arrange our church life, only two things can effectively limit or respond to a sermon which has an error. Either 1) The issue must be covered in another sermon, or 2) the pastors must publicly object to, clarify, or disclaim all or part of a sermon in their own mini-sermon, tacked onto the service.
Furthermore, if either of these things is to be done, it has to be done soon. People leave. Guests come and go. People miss days, or seasons. Time has an effect. Imagine a newspaper publishing a falsehood on the frontpage, where it will be noticed, and then waiting until the message has been absorbed and the details forgotten to publish a clarification or retraction. Clarifications, corrections, and disclaimers only work if they are as noticeable as the original message - and they only work if the matter is fresh. Back to the newspaper metaphor: A retraction or needed clarification of a major article cannot be published in some hidden back column. It must be visible.
If there is a problem with a sermon, then, either in explicit teaching or in some attitude or implication, it can only be responded to directly in another sermon (or what amounts to one). It would also have to be another sermon on Sunday morning, where people look for sermons. If it is to be counteracted in a targeted way, it must also be soon. A month from now, no one will remember what was in that one sermon, on that one day. The effect will remain, however. A month from now, as well, the audience will be different. Guest will have left. People will be back in school. Different parents will be more (or less) distracted by the particular cares of their young children. Whatever was said this past Sunday is what my church has said to all those part-time listeners, and it will stay that way.
I don’t just mean that sometimes we, as humans, makes errors and mistakes in our thinking and teaching. That is bad enough, but that is normal. What I mean is that, additionally, we have built for ourselves a communicative tradition without major correctives. Our method of dealing with the errors that (inevitably) arise is “try not to mess up.” If anything is added to this, it is a version of “and we will try to fix anything that gets broken, along the way.”
Sermons are like broadcasts, and not like a well-designed curriculum. At best, they are building a body of content (if they are recorded, or if the manuscripts are published). They are not building a body of expected knowledge; no evangelical church tells the congregation “if you haven’t heard or read the sermon series on Deuteronomy, go home and do that; it’s a prerequisite for understanding the way we will talk about Hebrews.” The church also does not cycle through the same sermons as new congregants move through, refining the clarity and content as the teachers gain more wisdom. Of course, in other traditions a version of this – dictated from above – has been tried, but it feels distinctly high-church and not very evangelical.
It is difficult even to describe the gulf between the broadcast and the curriculum. Not only does a curriculum allow for assignments, not only does it allow for prerequisites, but it allows for revision. The expectation of knowledge and the structured sequence of teaching allow for commentary that loops back and talks about previous lessons, in a way that cannot realistically be done by the broadcast. The curriculum is constructive, in the sense of building up a complex network of knowledge, where individual parts may be reworked or replaced in the same superstructure. The curriculum is a standing body of work which can first be learned, and then (from the position of the informed) criticized or improved. The curriculum has one kind of objective (such as a comprehensive knowledge of some topic, at a certain level of detail), while the broadcast can only realistically hope to manage another, lesser objective: providing some piece of instruction which may be useful, if the participant can plug it into the correct place in their larger framework. The broadcast cannot manage this.
So what? What is wrong with the broadcast method of teaching? There may be other problems, but one is the lack of self-correction, refinement, or expansion. Of course a future broadcast (sermon) may add contradict a previous one, but it does not replace it or expand it. All broadcasts are created equal, except in being more-or-less forgotten in the distant past. “This broadcast is dedicated to the modification and correction of that one other broadcast from August, two years ago” may be grammatically coherent, but it is not culturally coherent. Put another way, two broadcasts naturally bear the relationship two each other of two books about the same topic. They do not, naturally, bear the relationship to each other of two chapters in the same book, and certainly not the relationship of the introduction to the more-thorough account of the same content.
What about the alternatives, though? Are there alternatives? It would be laughable for a preacher to assign homework, or to hand around a syllabus. It would be unthinkable for me to stand up in a sermon and disagree with the speaker (even if they are not a pastor). It would also be unthinkable for anyone to stand up in a sermon and ask for clarification on what might be a colossal and deadly misunderstanding. I don’t only mean that people would be shocked, offended, and wish for the interrupter to be silenced immediately and reprimanded severely thereafter. I mean, also, that most evangelicals have spent their entire lives “in church.” I have too. I have spent my entire life under the long, slow, overwhelming pressure of behavior and habit telling me what church is, and it isn’t people standing up and interrupting the pastor. It doesn’t matter that I know better than to think this way. It doesn’t help that I have good theology about what really makes church. I have spent a thousand days building the habit of what church is, and I am bound by that habit.
So is (almost) everyone else there.
We are all, in some way, stuck with the effects of church services. It wouldn’t just be unthinkable for me to interrupt a sermon. It would shocking for a church elder to stand up and express reservations, even if they waited politely for the preacher to finish. There would be a scandal. It would be a terrible shame felt by a preacher who experienced that, and people would feel embarrassed for him. These are the assumptions of the church service, and we are clothed in them.
It seems we have only two options. Either we have to break the habit of what counts as church, or we have to ignore the problem and hope to patch up any bad effects as they show up down the road.
I am under no illusions about the ease or difficulty of this first option. If what we do on Sunday morning stops looking like “normal church,” even occasionally, people will leave the church. Other people will hear and never attend. People will hear simplified rumors and say nasty things about the church pursuing gimmicky church services. If (for example) one Sunday we were to replace the sermon with three church leaders sitting in chairs on the stage, talking through how to handle challenges to the faith, many people would walk out at the end saying that it didn’t feel like church. We might get away with it as an occasional “special service,” but it would always feel like an exception.
And how would you combine that with the singing, reading creeds, offering-collection, and the Lord’s Supper? How would that fit together? And what if we don’t change the Sunday morning worship service, but instead try to convince everyone that Sunday morning isn’t the real representation of our church? How would one even communicate that? In a sermon? The idea of a Sunday morning service filled with preaching against Sunday morning services appeals to my sense of the ironic, but I have trouble seeing how any effect other than simple confusion would be the result. The effect would be that of a talk dedicated to undermining the reliability of the speaker.
What about the other option? What about the option of simply accepting the problems in sermons and trying to counteract the effects? With what will you counteract the effects? With another sermon that coyly approaches the same general topic, six months later, but tries to do so better? With the lesser weight of lightly attended church activities viewed by almost everyone as “supplemental” or “optional,” and certainly as less central? We are deceiving ourselves if we think or act as if any other thing the church does carries the same publicity, the same weight, the same “voice of the church” as the Sunday morning service.
There is (at least) one version of this second option, which might eventually have the effect of the first option as well. if, somewhere, you could find two pastors willing to trade off a pulpit from week to week and willing to flatly contradict each other, then you might make some progress. The degree of mutual confidence these two would need to have in each other would be immense. The need for careful interaction – the need to present each other’s ideas and reasons in the best light while arguing against each other – would be paramount. The need to explain the idea to the congregation would be nearly as great, or perhaps greater. Still, you might make some progress with this. It might, in other words, eventually dissolve from the mind of regular congregants the idea that the Sunday morning sermon was the voice of the church. If this could be done somewhere, and if it could be done without breaking the congregation apart, it would be a remarkable test case. Still, it would only be one congregation, and it would need to be a remarkable one at that. It hardly seems a likely solution to the problem.
Perhaps you expect me to attempt to conclude this long case with a solution - a way out of this problem. I won’t. I can’t. I don’t know a way out. I am going to conclude, instead, with another problem, which is really the same problem:
People need an extended breakdown of where the falseness lies in a false teaching, or else they will be very likely to be drawn in. People also must have an outline of the character and subtlety of temptation. Believers need such mental equipment, and they don’t generally get it. Instead, we get repeated exhortations to “just believe,” “[just] hold fast to Christ,” and similar teaching. We need more detail than this. We need to know how to vivisect false teachings and how to identify and choke out subtle evils, if we are to avoid them.
When are we going to learn how to do so? When specifically are we going to learn how? In another thousand Sundays which hardly bring the idea up? Everything we leave out, on Sunday morning, makes it harder for us to manage what we do encounter there. How are we going to manage when even the sermon gets things wrong?
I am speaking, of course, about human perception and the nature of communication. This may be the single greatest barrier to the success of my essay; the evangelicals I most want to reach (the thoughtful, theologically educated crowd) are often suspicious of arguments or explanations which are not explicitly theological. I cannot, of course, response to that prejudice here. I hope to address it elsewhere.