On Teaching and Sermons

Over at the Jesus Creed blog, Scot McKnight is asking people their thoughts about sermons (catch it here).

One of my favorite things about the Jesus Creed blog is that original thinkers tend to show up with regularity. It is always an adventure reading outside-of-the-box thinkers and interacting with them.

boring_lecture1For example, I was glad to read others questioning the sermon-centric model of worship that prevails in a large segment of Christianity. If you have participated in many evangelical Christian services, you know that the music and prayers and sort of cushions preparing for the sermon and bringing you back to earth afterwards.

I would imagine that the people most uncomfortable with this arrangement are the clergy. As a rule they are intelligent people who studied Greek (maybe Hebrew as well) and read theological tomes that would curl the hair of their parishioners.

And yet they are expected to deliver 30-minute inspirational talks instead of really teaching.

What if seminaries operated like these sermon-centric churches? “I have to go to Christology now. Professor is preaching on the I-Am statements of the Fourth Gospel.”

I am not completely against sermons. They have their place. They are insufficient, though, and not worthy of being the center.

And Episcopalian commenter wrote in to appreciate how his denomination makes a service of prayer the center. The sermon in his faith community is not central, but additional inspiration and light learning added to a service that is focused on worship.

Of course, in a Jewish context, this is equally, if not more, true. The d’rash is a short, helpful addition to a service which is about covenant, Torah, the Majesty on high, and so on.

In your faith community, how do teaching and the service of worship balance? Does your worship in some ways approximate the glorifying Temple services in the Hebrew Bible and in Revelation?

In the case of our synagogue, the service of worship follows the pattern of the traditional Jewish service for Shabbat morning. We keep the core without obligation to practice every element and every repetition. The pattern of Jewish worship makes the Torah service the high point, and for our community it really is like having Mt. Sinai every week. Our combination of freedom to innovate and participation in tradition seems just right to us.

You might wonder how our congregation can learn the Bible, theology, and practice in a service which has only a three minute d’rash instead of a thirty minute sermon. We have chosen to have a separate hour for learning and discussion right before the prayer service and with a small break in between.

The community-learning model we use is a combination of teaching and discussion. People stay alert because they are participants. People are challenged to know the topic so they can contribute.

The teacher in this model prepares more thoroughly because he cannot just say any old poorly-thought-out thing without being challenged. People keep you on your toes when objections, questions, and contributions are encouraged.

I think this model has many benefits:

(1) If this was purely discussion with a facilitator and no teacher, then the level of learning would often be lower. Let’s face it, real learning doesn’t happen when unprepared participants talk about “what it means to them.”

(2) If this was purely lecture, then the teacher could get away with poorly argued points and platitudes. There is something about an intelligent audience with the chance to participate that makes a leader want to know his stuff.

(3) If this was purely lecture, then the congregation could be musing about anything and everything but the material (“I wonder if that episode of Burn Notice is still available on hulu . . .”).

(4) Because discussion is encouraged, people are more likely to read and think in advance and also afterwards. After all, it is community learning, not a clergy performance.

Is your place of worship sermon-centric? Do you follow a different model? Do you want your model to change? Do tell us how it works in your community and what you think about it.


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Christian, Judaism, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to On Teaching and Sermons

  1. tnnonline says:

    I got a real kick out of seeing all of the midshipmen falling asleep in the picutre! My late grandfather was a professor at the Naval Academy for 47 years, and I know exactly the building where the shot was taken. I have a picture of my grandfather in my office, all in his doctoral robes, shaking hands with Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

    Back to the subject, I understand how in many different religious traditions–including the Messianic movement–the service can become too sermon-centric. At the same time, equally to be concerned about is how our generation has been largely dumbed down to not getting any real theology in a sermonic message. A lot of the 30 minute sermons are meant to entertain, and not give a great deal of teaching. Too many pastors seldom prepare before they get up to preach, and so they just “wing it.”

    Having been to a wide variety of Messianic congregations in my almost fifteen years of this, I have seen a diverse array of models. Almost all of them are focused around the Torah service, to the point where a few do not address any other part of the Bible–ever–even during their weekly events. I think it would be best for us to consider the diversity of style we see in the Apostolic Scriptures, especially in comparing and contrasting the synagogue services seen in Capernaum where Yeshua read from Isaiah, and Pisidian Antioch in Acts 13, where Paul actually did give a sermon after the reading of the Law and Prophets.

    During our services, we also need to learn to have ways for the people to play a more active role. That’s the main reason why folks fall asleep. If the brain does not shift its activity every twenty minutes or so, people are likely to shrug their heads and dose off. One idea could be limiting the amount of actual Hebrew liturgy, include more of it in English, and have different designated readers participate every week.

  2. heavenisnear says:

    we started as a “Torah Sabbath Bible Study” in a living room about 4 years ago. 4 years later, not much has changed except our location and the addition of 5 or 10 more regular attenders. It’s essentially a 3-hour bible study with some variations. It provides an opportunity to go deep into the text. But I desperately want things to change and I’m not sure how to go about approaching it with people who shy from Jewish tradition or just a more formal atmosphere in general.

    Just where we’re at.. you asked. :)

  3. heavenisnear:

    I appreciate your candor. Filter this appropriately, but sometimes it is worth risking a paradigm change. People may feel stretched, but status quo leads nowhere. Nothing good comes without risk.


  4. “Is your place of worship sermon-centric? Do you follow a different model? Do you want your model to change? Do tell us how it works in your community and what you think about it.”

    OK, here’s the model we use for our congregation:

    1. Liturgical Service (Siddur prayers/responsive reading, etc) – 30 mins.

    2. Musical / song Worship – 30 mins.

    3. Torah Service – 20+ mins.

    4. Parashat / Haftarah Summary – 10 mins. (done by one of the leaders on rotational basis – not by the Rabbi)

    5. Announcements – 5 mins

    6. 10 – 15 min. coffee break (really helps keep people alert for the message)

    7. Message/sermon (based on that Shabbat’s Parashat) – 30 – 40 mins. (feedback encouraged during – within reason – and especially after the message).

    8. Kiddush

  5. josephmcole says:

    “Is your place of worship sermon-centric? Do you follow a different model? Do you want your model to change? Do tell us how it works in your community and what you think about it.”

    Our entire worship service is geared to preparing the hearts of the people for the sermon. Here’s a breakdown:

    30 min Musical Song Worship

    20 min Announcements/Personal Testimonies

    30 min Sermon

    Despite the risk of disagreeing with you, I believe that it is well to center the service around the sermon for the following reason: preaching should be geared to bring about a decision.

    People should leave the service different than when the arrived and the only for that to occur is for them to make a decision. That could be a decision to accept Yeshua as their Messiah or it could be that of forgiving that person that they hate. Either way, they are changed.

    Also, in regards to sermons going “deep” in teaching, I find that often these types of lectures or discussions do not create an atmosphere for change. Often, they are opportunities to show others how intelligent or well-read the pastor is or any of the congregants. I even remember sitting next to some of my peers in Bible school and thinking that I would never want them to serve with me in the church because their lives did not reflect the values of the book they were studying. Deep studies do not create the atmosphere for change and repentance. Well-crafted sermons can and do.

  6. Joseph:

    You and I are coming from two completely different sets of presuppositions.

    You and your church follow, whether you know it or not, a model derived from the revivals of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Presuppositions that I disagree with include:

    –The purpose of gathering for worship is to “get people saved.”
    –Salvation is primarily a personal decision to “accept the Lord.”
    –The gospel is personal salvation.
    –Knowledge is overrated.
    –Preaching creates character in people.

    I would point out that this model has no proven benefit. Studies show that Christians who sit under this model are just as screwed up as everyone else.

    My assumptions are different;

    –The purpose of gathering to worship is a transaction of love with God.
    –Salvation is a message of joining with God, through Messiah, in healing the world.
    –The gospel is about the rule of God coming to earth and the way made by Messiah for us to be under God’s rule.
    –Knowledge is underrated.
    –An informed congregation is a congregation better prepared to serve God.


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