In a recent Christianity Today article titled “Flipping the 40-Minute Sermon,” the author’s argument goes like this: Attention spans have shriveled, and what we think of as a sermonic monologue should be split up. Pastors should actually do their main teaching online, in bite-sized segments throughout the week, and use the gathered church on Sundays as a place to foster personal interaction and fellowship. Pastor John, what do you think of flipping the 40-minute sermon — of making the sermon less significant or insignificant on Sundays?
Well, it’s interesting that you should ask that, because Bob Glenn, my friend out at Redeemer Bible Church, sent me a notice about this article, so I read it. He wanted to know what I thought. And I had just listened to a great 40-minute message from Bob on Hosea, so I could see why he was concerned about this.
I wrote him and said that this suggestion rolls around every twenty years or so. “Oh, poor sermon, it’s on life support. The sermon’s days are numbered. Let’s all get participatory.” I get weary, frankly, of these kinds of suggestions for sermons.
Not a Classroom
But here is the main problem: The author of that article, I think, is committing a category confusion. She was comparing the sermon to the lecture method of teaching in a college class as opposed to what happens in a more Socratic or participatory method. And I agree with the Socratic method. I think that is exactly right. When I teach in college or seminary, I don’t want to mainly lecture. I want to teach by forcing students to ask questions, to think for themselves. But here is the catch: The sermon in the context of worship is not a lecture.
Worship is not a classroom. The category for thinking about it is not pedagogical. It is not educative. Those are secondary. Pedagogy and education are secondary in the worship service. The category is of a supernatural encounter with the living God, as the preacher worships over the word and draws the people into an experience of God Almighty through his proclamation. That is the category.
If you try to just replace that category with a lecture category, then her argument is going to make sense. She is saying, “All we are trying to do here is improve people’s understanding of some theological truths.” Well, that is just not the main point of preaching. The first aim of preaching is not education, but encounter. Paul says to Timothy, “Preach the word” (2 Timothy 4:2). The context is one of worship there. The context is the people of God, not just proclamation to the world.
Preachers Are Heralds
To the people of God kēryxon ton logon, preach the word. A kēryx is not a teacher. A kēryx is a herald, a town crier. So sermons say, “Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye: the King of the universe has a message. Everyone who bows the knee to him will be forgiven all their sins and there will be a treaty and they will be free to be a part of the King’s kingdom evermore.” You announce. You don’t first explain.
Now, if a little child comes up to you and says, “I don’t know what the word treaty means,” then you are going to explain that. You might explain it in the sermon itself, but the explanation is secondary. The announcement, the heralding, the proclamation of the living God calling his people to the fullest enjoyment of his kingdom is the main purpose of the sermon. I call it expository exultation. That is with a U: exult-ation. I am exulting in God over his word, and I am drawing people into my exultation over the truth that I am preaching.
“The proclamation of the living God calling his people to the fullest enjoyment of his kingdom is the main purpose of the sermon.”
There are other times in the church when what this author was commending is exactly what should happen. There should be lots and lots of discussion, provocative back-and-forth, testing, proving, wrestling, and struggling. That is what classes, seminars, conferences, and small groups are for. It is just sad that anyone would suggest that this hour or hour and one-half per week in which we, as a collective people, gather to stand before the living God and lift our voices in praise to him, confess our sins and hear him powerfully address us through the voice of an anointed person, should be replaced somehow by all the other good things that are happening in the church. So my response is this: Let preaching be preaching. Let it be expository exultation — a profound meeting with the living God.
Does that mean there’s something missing when we listen to a 40-minute sermon through ear buds, and we are not with the gathered local church?
Yes, in part, but I would say this: The nature of that expository exultation does not cease to be when it is listened to on the Internet. It still is that, and a person can be drawn into that kind of heralding. Yes, you can’t reproduce the actual collection of the people of God gathered in that moment of worship. But that doesn’t mean that the only kind of communication that should happen through the Internet is a more pedagogical, back-and-forth kind of effort, because expository exultation really is a man in a worship setting exulting, worshipping over a text. And that kind of encounter with the living God can come through that medium.