Did you know that, though the "sermon" is the bedrock of the Protestant liturgy, it actually detracts from the very purpose for which God designed the church gathering?
So central is the sermon that it is the very reason many Christians go to church. In fact, the entire service is often judged by the quality of the sermon. Remove the sermon and you have eliminated the most important source of spiritual nourishment for countless numbers of believers (so it is thought). Yet the stunning reality is that today's sermon has no root in Scripture. Rather, it was borrowed from pagan culture, nursed and adopted into the Christian faith.
The present-day Christian sermon has the following features:
- It is a regular occurrence.
- It is delivered by the same person every week.
- It is delivered to a passive audience.
- It is a cultivated form of speech - possessing a specific structure with an introduction, three to five points, and a conclusion.
Contrast this with the apostolic preaching recored in Acts which possessed the following features:
- It was sporadic.
- It was delivered on special occasions in order to deal with specific problems.
- It was extemporaneous and without rhetorical structure.
- It was most often dialogical (including feedback and interruptions from the listeners).
The New Testament letters show that the ministry of God's Word came from the entire church in their regular gathering.
The earliest recorded Christian source for regular sermonizing is found during the late second century. Though Clement of Alexandria lamented the fact that sermons did so little to change Christians, it became a standard practice among believers by the fourth century. The Christian sermon was borrowed from the pagan pool of Greek culture.
The sophists were expert debaters. They were masters at using emotional appeals, physical appearance, and clever language to "sell" their arguments. In time, the style, form, and oratorical skill of the sophists became more prized than their accuracy. This spawned a class of men who became masters of fine phrases, cultivating style for style's sake. The truths they preached were abstract rather than truths that were practiced in their own lives. They were experts at imitating form rather than substance.
So how did the Greek sermon find its way into the Christian church? Around the third century a vacuum was created when the mutual ministry faded from the body of Christ. To fill this void, the clergy began to emerge. Many pagan orators and philosophers were becoming Christians. They are known to us now as the "church fathers," and some of their writings are still with us. Thus the pagan notion of a trained professional speaker who delivers orations for a fee moved straight into the Christian bloodstream. Contrast this with the custom of Jewish rabbis who took up a trade so as to not charge a fee for their teaching.
So, this new style of communication was being birthed in the Christian church - a style that emphasized polished rhetoric, sophisticated grammar, flowery eloquence, and monologue designed to entertain and show off the speaker's oratorical skills. Only those who were trained in it were allowed to address the church body. The sermon became the elitist privilege of church officials, particularly the bishops. Such people had to be educated in the schools of rhetoric to learn how to speak. Without this education, a Christian was not permitted to address God's people.
And then the reformation...
Luther viewed the church as the gathering of those who listen to the Word of God being spoken to them. For this reason he once called the church building a Mundhaus (mouth-house or speech-house).
John Calvin argued that the preacher is the "mouth of God." (Ironically, both men vehemently railed against the idea that the pope was the vicar of Christ.) Calvin was a master at this form. Before his conversion, he employed this style while writing a commentary on a work by the pagan author Seneca. When he was converted and turned to sermonizing, he applied the same analytical style to the Bible.
The present-day sermon harms the church in the following five ways:
1. The sermon makes the preacher the virtuoso performer of the regular church gathering. The sermon turns the church into a preaching station and the congregation degenerates into a group of muted spectators who watch a performance. The sermon freezes and imprisons the functioning of the body of Christ turning them into a docile priesthood.
2. The sermon often stalemates spiritual growth. Because it is a one-way affair it encourages passivity and suffocates mutual ministry and open participation. We do not grow by passive listening week after week.
3. The sermon preserves the unbiblical clergy mentality which creates an excessive and pathological dependence on the clergy. The sermon is one of the biggest roadblocks to a functioning priesthood.
4. Rather than equipping the saints, the sermon de-skills them. Unfortunately many of God's people are just as addicted to hearing sermons as many preachers are addicted to preaching them.
5. Today's sermon is often impractical. The sermon fails to put the hearers into a direct, practical experience of what has been preached. It mirrors its true father - Greco-Roman rhetoric, designed to entertain and display genius rather than instruct or develop talents in others. In the end, it actually intensifies the impoverishment of the church.
The church family needs a restoration of the first-century practice of mutual exhortation and mutual ministry. For the New Testament hinges spiritual transformation upon these two thing. We move far outside of biblical bounds when we allow teaching to take the form of a conventional sermon and relegate it to a class of professional orators.
Excerpts from Pagan Christianity by George Barna and Frank Viola