Forming Faith Blog

The Problem with Sermons

Proclamation is about transmitting the good news to others, by any means necessary. Preaching is a method of proclamation, but what if it’s not the most efficient method to have in your worship service? What are the alternatives?

A pastor holding an open Bible. Preaching sermons.
Inclusive Worship, Exclusive Preaching

Depending upon who you ask, the sermon is the heart of the worship service.* It is the proclamation of the Gospel around which the rest of the service is arranged. Therefore, in a conversation about how the weekly corporate worship service can become more inclusive and expansive, the sermon must be addressed. And, unfortunately, the sermon can unintentionally be exclusive and counter to expansive worship. There are better ways, including ways that involve Christian educators and everyone else.

* In some traditions the celebration of Communion/Eucharist is the heart, but, even then, the sermon is a close second. I’m not going to include Communion in this blog series because a) the ritual is already multi-sensory and participatory, b) the tradition is quite prescriptive and difficult to change, and c) a simple blog post is not going to change your mind on what age people should be before being allowed to participate.

Preaching, Speaking

A traditional sermon is basically a speech (or lecture). A single preacher stands in front of the congregation and speaks on a spiritual topic (often a Bible passage, but not always) for 10-30+ minutes. I’m not going to say that there is anything wrong with giving a speech, per se. But a speech is limited. Speeches, regardless of topic, can be somewhere between engaging and boring. And it will only reach a portion of worshippers.

Learning Styles

The topic of learning styles can be quite complex, and it is not without controversy. But we do know that different people learn best in different ways. More importantly, everyone learns best when multiple parts of their brain are engaged.

The problem is that a traditional sermon is directed solely at the aural (hearing) learning pathway. This works for some people but not for others. By addressing only one sense (and really only in one way), you are leaving a lot of people out. I, for one, can learn by only listening, but it is not as effective. [And don’t get me started on the oral readings of Scripture from non-narrative portions of the Bible like the Epistles, Prophets, or Psalms. That’s a conversation for a different time.]

Assumed Knowledge

Another exclusionary factor of your traditional sermon is that it requires prior knowledge and understanding. This is natural. The preacher assumes that worshippers understand the language they are using, the specific vocabulary, general concepts and knowledge, and even the particular context of the preacher and community. This is a necessary part of a speech. (And writing.) You must start somewhere. Preachers can be more or less aware of this and be more or less conscious of overcoming this exclusionary hurdle. However, it is likely that some portion of the newbies (children, youth, and visitors) will be left out and lost.

Related to this is the fact that a sermon is about transmitting to others the knowledge, interpretation, and experiences of a single person. Again, a preacher can be more or less aware of this and work to include a greater number of perspectives. But it is likely that a portion of worshippers will be left out. Please don’t take this as an argument against specific (seminary) education and training for professional pastors. I think that’s quite helpful in many circumstances.

Preaching vs. Proclamation

Before you yell at me for the heresy of suggesting that you toss out the traditional sermon (which I will do below), I want to point out that there is a difference between preaching and proclamation (in a Christian sense, as I’m using the terms). Preaching is a type of proclamation, namely proclamation through a speech (sermon). But proclamation is a much bigger category. Proclamation is about transmitting the good news to others, by any means necessary. It is more about the goal than the method.

Proclamation as Faith Formation

It should not come as a surprise that a blog called “Forming Faith” will get around to faith formation sooner or later. My definition of faith formation is:

Every action, experience, or relationship that nurtures a transformative relationship of trust with God and shapes the way we see and interact with God’s world.

Isn’t the purpose of proclamation to nurture (or foster) a transformative relationship of trust with (i.e., faith in) God? Listening to a sermon is an experience, so that’s not even left out. (Worship is an important part of this, too!)

Expansive Faith Formation, Expansive Proclamation

Within faith formation, we should have a motto like “no person is left behind.” At least no willing person. We must leave the unwilling people in God’s most capable hands. In our proclamation, this means creating a time to engage worshippers in the good news. Here are a few suggestions, though these can either replace the sermon (tossing it out), or be added to it.

  1. Re-contextualized storytelling: If your purpose is to bring worshippers into the story of God in Scripture, then tell or retell the story! You can recontextualize the story in a modern setting, you can use sensory details, you can have some, most, or all worshippers participate or respond in some way (skit, movement, refrain, etc.).  
  2. Participation: Instead of passively listening to a sermon, challenge worshippers to participate in some way with self-reflection, conversation, drawing, doodling, telling their stories, touching an object (water, play dough, even an orange!).
  3. Multisensory experiences: Whatever you do, I would highly recommend trying to engage as many senses as possible, even if worshippers need to imagine the scent or taste of something.
  4. Relationship-building: Use part of your time to help worshippers get to know each other and start to build relationship, especially across generations. Please note that if you are asking people to talk to each other, it is helpful to some people (introverts especially) to start with a short period of self-reflection before moving into the conversation.

A key to all of this is that worshippers are no longer passive recipients, but active participants. They can start from wherever they are and engage in faith formation.

Overall, spend some time reflecting on the purpose of your sermon time and how it can be changed or added to in your context to be more engaging and inclusive to the most people. Include your other faith formation leaders in this reflection and reimagination.

[Requisite plug: If you are using the Narrative Lectionary, check out our Living the Word: Cross+Gen Worship resource to help with all of this!]

In the love of Christ,

Gregory Rawn (Publisher)

2021-2022 Faith Formation Resources

Our Narrative Lectionary and Revised Common Lectionary products for the upcoming 2021-2022 program year are now available for download. Find out more!

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