By Tim Chermak
Much has been written recently concerning the budding phenomenon of faith-based media. The Christian church is experiencing a revolution in how it approaches media, as more and more pastors are now using Twitter, Facebook, and other communication channels to spread the good news.
A renaissance is brewing.
In the midst of this ecclesiological revolution, has anyone bothered to question the validity of the godfather of Christian media-the sermon?
As traditional church-going Christians, we often judge the entire service by the “quality” of the sermon-as if somehow it could be graded. If you removed the sermon from a Protestant Sunday morning, you’d probably be left with nothing but a few songs-perhaps the dreaded announcements. When we say we’re “going to church,” we really mean we’re going to hear a sermon. It’s not much of a stretch to categorize church as a synonym for “sermon-listening.”
More than any other form of media, the sermon is almost purely a monologue-there is no interaction going on. The pastor (actively) preaches, and the congregation (passively) listens. While some churches have been experimenting with live chat interaction, the very nature of a sermon severely limits the possibilities for innovation-at the core of homiletic delivery lies a tendency to simply hammer down a point. Discussion? Save that for small groups.
Author David Norrington provides this bold analysis of the centerpiece of Protestant liturgy, “The sermon is, in practice, beyond criticism. It has become an end in itself.”
To understand where we are, and where we’re going, it might be helpful to learn where we’ve been. The Christian sermon is rooted in the public speaking revolution that swept the Mediterranean world in the 5th century…BC! The Greek sophists, from whom we derive the English word sophisticated, were the first people to specialize in public speaking. The sophists were philosophers who made a living by speaking, either giving regular speeches to a specific crowd or bringing their show on the road-and being well compensated for their services.
The Greeks, and later Romans, were obsessed with the art of rhetoric, often hiring sophists to deliver speeches to their dinner guests.To the ancient mind, a philosophic speech was a form of entertainment, just as modern culture glorifies the silver screen. One could say that Athens was the Hollywood of ancient Greece. The sophists were the prestigious celebrities of their day, the ancient equivalent of our beloved professional athletes and movie stars.
The first century culture of the Mediterranean world glorified the sophists, and the earliest Christians were no different. As early as the third century, the early church called their sermons homilies, the same terminology the sophists used to describe their discourses. Today, students in seminary take homiletics classes-the science of the sermon.
It is no surprise that the early Christian church quickly adopted the pagan practice of polished rhetoric to its repertoire of liturgy. In the ancient world, a church without sermons was a church without electricity and running water-it was important to “communicate the gospel in a relevant manner.”
In his 1962 book Protestant Pastoral Counseling, Wayne Oates lamented the widespread dominance of the sermon:
“The original proclamation of the Christian message was a two-way conversation…but when the oratorical schools of the Western world laid hold of the Christian message, they made Christian preaching something vastly different. Oratory tended to take the place of conversation.”
Thousands of years later, the situation hasn’t changed. Sermons still dominate modern liturgy. Church buildings are still designed to glorify the stage. A pastor’s primary training is still homiletics.
In the age of blogs, texting, Facebook, and Twitter, maybe it’s time to explore the art of the sermon-for better or for worse.
Tim Chermak is a writer especially interested in asking the hard questions of faith and ecclesiology. He is currently working on a degree in Social Philosophy at Calvin College.