Friday, January 05, 2007

Why do pastors give sermons?

Sometimes simple questions help us to see things in a new way, and so I would like to ask: why do pastors give sermons?

I base this question on an observation. In American Christianity, there is a strong norm that the pastor in a local church should do almost all of that church's Sunday preaching. Pastors can delegate just about every other aspect of church life---worship, evangelism, fundraising, administration, hospitality, etc.., but they should do the Sunday teaching every week (with a few weeks off for good behavior).

Let's call this the pastors-should-preach norm, and it leads us to ask why.

Well, we can probably rule out the most obvious explanation--that pastors are always the best teacher available for Sunday mornings. Many congregations have gifted teachers who could be part of a teaching team. Furthermore, with so many sermons available on-line and DVD, a church could easily have guest spots by some of the best preachers in the country: Bill Hybels, Andy Stanley, T.D. Jakes, Franklin Graham, and Nigel Tufnel. (Okay, the last one is the guitar player for Spinal Tap--just seeing if you were paying attention).

I can think of several social reasons for this norm.

1) Tradition. Organizational habits are very powerful, and for as long as anyone can remember, that's what pastors do.

2) Justifies job. Pastoring is a very important job that doesn't always have tangible outcomes. Comforting the afflicted, afflicting the comfortable, sharing the good news, feeding the poor, and just running a church are pastoral activities that don't lend themselves to easy quantification or even public notice. As such, congregation members might ask what does the pastor do, and a public talk each week is a vivid demonstration of "doing something".

The irony here is that some pastors aren't particularly good teachers, and so the preaching norm plays to their weaknesses and takes them away from other, more fruitful activities.

3) Demonstrates expertise. Teaching is a great way to show that you know something. You get to pick the material, get to prepare it ahead of time, and present it without challenge (usually). This is the fundamental attribution error--when teachers present information, we think they are smart instead of just having had time to prepare. (It's also the Alex-Trebek syndrome--but that's a rant for another day). Part of doing any job well is having other people think that you know what you are doing, and so demonstrating expertise is a valuable exercise.

Now, I'm not against pastors preaching, but these social influences might lead it to be a bigger part of a pastor's job than would be otherwise.
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Ben Dubow said...

There seem like a few different questions here:

(1) What is the THEOLOGICAL basis and purpose for sermons?

(2) What is the best way to accomplish the THEOLOGICAL purpose of sermons?

(3) What is the nature of MINISTRY within a church? (Who does it, why, by what qualification, etc?)

As for #1:

The teaching and application of God's Word has always been critical to the faith life of those in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The sermon really acts, in many respects, as "modern day prophecy" (not predicting the future, but understanding Biblical prophecy as explanation and revelation of God's word to His people along with a sense of what happens when people don't heed God's word).

For me, the purpose of preaching is not primarily catechetical (though it is partially so) nor simply about information transfer but rather about life transformation and change. After all, I believe that "the word of God is living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword..." (Hebrews 4:12) and that it is also "God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that all of God's people may be thoroughly equipped for every good work." (2 Tim 3:16-17).

So preaching is a big deal. It is not "speeching" or to be entertainment (though both aspects may be there in terms of effective communication). It is not warm devotional thoughts from the pastor. It is not simply in-depth word-study and transference of academic minutia. It is the proclaiming of God's Word (Good News!) in a way that is relevant, true, and transformative.

Additionally, preaching is applying God's word to a specific, localized situation and community. The preacher must discern how the topic/text relates and connects specifically to the local congregation and community. This may be one reason that simply bringing in the "best of" preachers by video may not be effective. As great as John Ortberg, Andy Stanley, Erwin McManus or Bill Hybels may be (and I think they are great!)they are not local (here) and cannot speak informed by local issues/challenges/problems/needs, etc.

That said, what about #2 -- What is the best way to accomplish the THEOLOGICAL purpose of sermons?

To me, there are no particular rules about who should do it or how it should be done. As a pastor and lead communicator at the church I am at, I am most interested in clarity and effectiveness--not that people think I'm smart, clever, a great speaker, creative, interesting, insightful or anything else.

I believe in a team teaching approach and that is a direction we are trying to move in our church. We want to have a team of people who together do the primary teaching--sometimes jointly, sometimes rotating, etc. We also want to use elements beyond simply "speaking" such as video, discussion, talk-back, etc.

This begs the 3rd question about the nature of ministry (and of the teaching ministry specifically).

I believe all ministry must be gift-based, for "It was [Christ] who gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip God's people for works of service, so that the Body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith...becoming mature, and attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of each part [of the Body] does its work." (Ephesians 4:11-16)

In short, only those with teaching/preaching gifts should be teaching/preaching in the church.

(Note that Biblically, the gifts of teaching/preaching/prophecy are not equal to "being a great speaker" or "being a great teacher". Sometimes people believe they can preach simply because they are great or even professional communicators/speakers...but you must have something to say too!)

We need to get past model where we assume that the pastor must be gifted at all things -- pastoral care, administration, vision casting, leading, being nice to children, cleaning the fellowship hall, preaching, budgeting, small group leading, evangelism, discipleship, etc etc etc.

That person does not exist. We must embrace team-based and gift-based ministry.

This will take a fundamental shift in thinking at many churches--both for pastors and the laity.

It is OK for a Senior Pastor not to be the lead communicator in the church.

I also think we need to re-think the whole process of how sermons are developed. Great preaching needs to be dialogical--a conversation! The 30-minutes on Sunday should be part of the conversation, but probably not the beginning or end of it. A great message "lives and breathes" throughout the week. If you can't tell me in 1 sentence what my Sunday message was about on Wednesday, I have failed as a communicator and a pastor.

At our church we are looking into creative ways to expand the dialogue to include both before and after Sunday -- discussion groups, small groups, etc.

We are also thinking about using a wiki concept to allow the community to be involved with the writing/editing/forming of messages. I'm not sure it will work, but I am committed to trying.

Anyway, this got longer than I intended... sorry :-)

brewright said...

We're asking somewhat different questions, I think. Your question #1 is my #2 (which I wisely chose not to address).

Your questions #2 & #3 get at "how" sermons should be done, and for the most part I agree, though I really don't have much expertise with that issue.

I'm addressing more of a social observation--why is it that of the many ministries in any given church, one seems to be always filled by the pastor?

There is convergence in our ideas, though.

Your write that "only those with teaching/preaching gifts should be teaching/preaching in the church." My post might identify why some people would have trouble with that if the pastor is not one with p/t gifts.

Your general approach is working from ends back to means. What should sermons do, and how can we get that done.

I agree, makes sense.

Just a guess, but if all churches took this approach many of them would back off the pastor-should-preach 48 weeks a year model.

CforbesOklahoma said...

I think the best argument is, ideally the pastor knows the people and the community and where they are spiritually and can speak to their needs. The job of the pastor is to equip people to be ministers in their community not do all the ministry or hook people up with cool preaching.

Dan Myers said...

I think it also has something to do with have a focal point for leadership. Even though people come to church for lots of reasons ranging from singing, to fellowship, to the cookies afterward, there is a fundamental center to the activity that is the teaching piece. Without the sermon, most people wouldn't consider it a church service--well at least not a regular one (at least for Protestants, Catholics would put communion at the center instead of the sermon). If that is the core defining element of the service, then the head religo-honcho ought to do it. The minister, or head minister, as the case may be, ought to provide the spiritual teaching center for the flock--and that usually comes through the sermon. The minister is the closet to being able to define agenda and orientation for the church. That leadership role is publicly and most meaningfully expressed through the sermon.

kent said...

Interesting question, and one that needs to be asked. Without question preaching is the most public thing that I do. So the job justification thing comes into play. Are there better communicators in my church, probably? are they willing? That is harder, but that also may be just their conditioning. To be honest somehow or other we got into this habit and habits are easier to maintain than change, also seminaries support this, tradition support this and publication houses support this. And since I am preaching this weekend, I must be also supporting this. Interesting.

Teddy said...

dear readers,

My name is Teddy, and I'm an apostle here in Philadelphia, Pa. The concern here is not totally about all the details of "what is a pastors duties and obligations". This will differ generally from chuch to church, and from time to time. As people in our congregations come and go, we need to find replacements that aren't always as "graceful" as others were. The true building and discipling of our church will only come when the leaders of the congregations lower their pride, and ask for what is really needed. Basketball courts and missionary trips can wait- if you haven't even chosen someone to lead your church as an apostle. How can a child plan out his life appropriately without a father and mother to guide him?

Do not look on the outside to judge, or in the books to see my name in their. I don't see anyone's name (that I know) in the Bible as a pastor. Is your university in the Bible too? That's funny, because Peter was mocked because of his lack of education as an apostle (in the book of Acts) by schooled religious leaders. Apostle Peter was not even fully informed of the rest of the Gospel written by Paul until years later. Peter denied Christ, as an apostle, and Judas betrayed our Savior.

The Lord's command: "Stop looking for a highly educated leader to build your congregation. I am your boss. Your will always be my servants. Read and re-read My Word, and let it come to light".

Right now, receive peace and abundant grace through the gifts of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Apostle Teddy