It is hard to pinpoint the one reason why mainline churches are in decline. Some people – like me – prefer to say that mainline churches are in the midst of a transformation. There is no resurrection without death. There is no morning without night. There is no possibility of renewal without some heavy shaking up of established paradigms. At the same time, I believe that we must honor our history as faith communities, firmly established in traditions that have formed and informed us. It is a delicate balance to maintain and one that few local communities – and perhaps larger denominations – have achieved.
Following this thinking, I have been reflecting on the role of the sermon within the worship life of the community. Often when you ask people about worship, the first thing that comes to mind is music, hymns, “coritos” (if you are in a Latinx church), prayer, silence, Communion, etc. Music, without a doubt, takes the center stage when it comes to worship life. Seldom, if ever, the sermon, reading of Scripture, study of the sacred texts and education come up in conversation about worship.
It is known that music has had a long history in the worship life of the faith communities. In the Christian church we hear about the use of Psalms and other musical elements throughout the letters of Paul to the churches and the Acts of the Apostles. Indubitable music is an integral part of communal worship. Music can help people to connect in a way that other parts of the service do not. Music helps – or should help – to pass on the teachings of the Church, to teach the growing generations of Christians about the history, beliefs and traditions of their community. Music helps people to connect with the Divinity in an emotional way (and yes, if used properly it can also help in connecting intellectually.) But what about the sermon?
Ask a 10 people about what they enjoy the most about worship and perhaps 8 will tell you that it is the music. Perhaps the other two might enjoy prayers or some other parts – offertory, anyone? – but I am almost certain that perhaps only one will mention, by passing, the sermon.
Note, however, that I am focusing on the mainline or historical Protestant traditions of the Church.
Recently I preached at a mainline church as a guest preacher. I tried my best to keep the sermon shorter than I am used to for two reasons: I knew the church didn’t enjoy long sermons – more than 12 minutes – and because we were already running late. After the service was over I stayed to greet people as they exited the sanctuary. A person approached me and said something like: “A friend who is a preacher said to me that a good sermon should not be more than 7 minutes. That if you can’t say it in that time, there’s nothing good to say.” No greetings. No “thank yous”. No questions or comments about an idea from the sermon or how it helped – or not – in his spiritual life. Nothing. I was taken aback and didn’t get to respond. But a second person approached with a similar comment about the length of sermons. To this person I replied: “Some traditions enjoy longer sermons. I myself grew up in a church that honored the sermon as an important part of the worship experience, with longer sermons being featured in church. Personally, I can go to worship and have no music whatsoever, but if I don’t have a sermon or the proclamation of Scripture, I have not had worship.” Now it was the person’s time to be taken aback! They looked at me stunned, as if I had said some kind of heresy or something! But what I said was true. I can attend a beautifully planned service with only chants, songs and music, but if there is no Bible reading and an explanation of it, I have not had a worship experience. (This is the reason, by the way, why I don’t quite like Taizé services.)
Interestingly, the largest and more attended churches in the USA are Evangelical congregations. These congregations generally feature long sermons that resemble more college lectures than anything else. The pastor’s words and how they expound on the Bible verses read are integral to the spiritual life of the congregation. Sure, they also feature long musical pieces, but nothing replaces the sermon in the spiritual life of the church.
Why, then, are these churches growing while ours are declining? Does the fact that we have relegated the sermon to a second and perhaps even third place in the worshipping life of the Church has something to do with it? I think it does.
When the Church was in its first stages of development, the Apostles took time to expand on the meaning of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. In Acts 20.7-12 we even read of how the Apostle Paul preached for so long that a young man who was listening, fell asleep and falling of the window where he was sitting! Of course I do not advocate for sermons so long that people start falling asleep and falling of windows… I just think that we must give the sermon and the proclamation of the Gospel the place that it deserves in Church.
Perhaps it is our hubris that makes us reject sermons in worship. With music, we can show off our talents and gifts; we can sing loud and clear, creating beautiful melodies that show others that we can overcome the ugly parts of life and create beauty. However, with a sermon we just sit there, allowing someone other than us tell us what the words mean, how they can be interpreted, what the history of the text is and how we can make use of these teachings in our daily lives. To listen to a sermon requires a humility that few of us in the mainline Church – the Church made up of mostly highly educated people – are willing to show. Listening to a sermon means that we are passive receptors of the wisdom of others, when our own society tells us that we are the center of the Universe and therefore the ones with all the answers.
A few years ago when I was being interviewed for my first church, I asked the president of the search committee how long they would like for me to preach at my candidating sermon. I had spent about three years in mostly Anglo-American, English speaking congregations, but having grown up in a rural, Puerto Rican mainline church, I already knew that there are always differences in worship styles. The person from the church was clear about what they were looking for: “Nothing too long. Between 40 to 45 minutes.” Yup. The Latino church was expecting their future pastor to preach for what others might consider a long time, but for them it was not too long. In fact, in my childhood church the pastor would preach for over 45 minutes, sometimes going over the hour. This was normal! Nobody complained or was concerned about lunch or after-church plans, because Sunday was for God and to worship in community. Church consumed pretty much all morning and even part of the early afternoon. And the sermon was at the center of the worship experience.
If you read the history of the Protestant church you will notice the importance of the sermon and the proclamation of the Gospel in the life of our faith. Pick up a book with the sermons from Luther, Calvin, Knox, Simmons, Zwingly or even later reformers such as Wesley or Campbell and you will notice that they gave Paul a run for his money! Their sermons are masterful theological essays that go on for pages and pages, expanding of the understanding of the faith we share.
As I said before, Evangelicals understand the importance of the sermon and the proclamation of the Gospel. In fact, the people who flock to their congregations are eager to receive the teachings and the wisdom that is shared during a sermon. They are in fact thirsty for it! What would happen if mainline churches reclaim the centrality of the sermon? What would happen if we honor our tradition of being the people of the Book and the people of the Word? In my ordination certificate it states that I was ordained to “the ministry of the Gospel”, not to the ministry of music or prayer or sacred dance… In some denominations the ordination is to “Word and Sacrament”, in others it is to “Word, Sacrament, Order, and Service.” No matter what, the Word is the central piece of ordination. Sure, pastors are chaplains and we tend to the spiritual needs of our congregants; but our main call is to open up the Gospel, to proclaim the good news, to preach and teach and educate.
I clearly remember the centrality of the sermon in my childhood church. The pulpit was at the center of the altar. Below it, at the level of the people, was the Communion Table. This symbolism showed us what was important when you entered this sacred space: the proclamation of the Gospel above all and the sharing of the Table with each other.
My invitation to our mainline congregations is to reclaim the centrality of the sermon in the spiritual and worship life of the Church. It is important to recognize the sermon and the proclamation of the Gospel as integral components of a worship experience. Seven minutes is not enough. Twelve minutes is not enough. I believe we must use as much or as little time as is needed to fulfill our task of proclaiming the good news. Whatever rules or understandings about the effective use of time in oratory should not be taken into consideration when considering a sermon. Would you be concerned about the length of a prayer? How about the length of meditation? I believe that the Church loses much when we want to impose the rules of the outside world to our spiritual life. Besides, how could it be that we are able to sit through an hour long speech by a politician but grumble when our pastors go over the magic 12 minute mark on their sermons?
I enjoy sermons. Whether they are long or short, if a sermon speaks to me, it speaks to me. A well-constructed sermon that opens up the Gospel is a beautiful aspect of worship and I will humbly sit down for as long as it takes to listen to it. Perhaps if we reclaim the centrality of the sermon in the life of the Church more people will be eager to join us and learn with us…