The End of the Sermon

Antoine at MMM asks, “How Do Faith-Based Organizations Respond to Increasingly Mobile-Connected Members and Communities?” His question echoes a central dynamic shaping not just religion, but all social organization going forward.

How do faith-based organizations respond to virtuality? The hardest part may be convincing the community that there’s a good reason to sit and stare at a stage, listening to a religious lecture. The virtually-connected faithful now have on-line access to the finest religious teachers imaginable, accessible at their convenience, 7 x 24 x 365. Of what value is physically proximate information (e.g., stage-centric priests and pastors) when the average adherent can now access the best sermons and cross-referenced commentary on-line?

Finding better information elsewhere, the virtually-connected community will restructure their physical gatherings to really connect and be present with each other like they do on-line all week long. When this happens, pastors can step off the stage and interact with people. Gifted teachers can teach in smaller groups where true interactivity can take place. Intimate, organic F2F gathering becomes the central focus, not a mid-week breakout session.

Why would anyone spend time sitting passively (“alone together”) in an audience to hear a comparatively mediocre religious talk when far better material is available on-line?

We all have something to contribute. We are not consumers, we are participants. A virtuality-connected community (which is everyone in my son’s generation) will increasingly mimic their on-line engagement in F2F gatherings. I believe this signals the end of the monologue church era. “Church” is redefined, in part, from a place of one-way information transfer to a distributed, interactive gathering which fosters authentic collaboration in many ways mirroring the multi-way virtual experience.

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Is it the end of the religious sermon? Likely not. And certainly there is a place for the stage. But generational changes in social networking assure that a profound shift is underway. And this gives me great hope for a virtual reformation in the way we live and connect as a glocal community.

ADDED: thanks to Scot McKnight for reprinting this post.

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11 thoughts on “The End of the Sermon

  1. john: i find that i hammer out the more difficult issues on my blog, and i leave sunday morning (yes, we still do that) for more face to face kind of interaction. good post.

  2. “I listen to the world’s finest theological discourses via my Blackberry while I workout at the gym or on my morning walk or driving in my truck. Why would I spend my time sitting in an audience every Sunday to hear a comparatively mediocre religious talk?”

    This is a highly individualistic and consumerist attitude. Is it really our job to consume information in the most efficient manner possible, where we maximize the quality while minimizing our own effort to receive it?

    I don’t want to give the impression that I am against listening to great sermons on your blackberry. I just want to point out that there can be a lot of purpose and beauty around the activity of a Sunday morning sermon that isn’t connected to efficient transfer of information.

  3. MT, seeking out good information (of any type) is admittedly a form of consumerism. I plead guilty. But I wonder if sitting passively in an audience, facing forward, listening to a religious lecture is any less “consumeristic” than seeking out far better inspiration on-line?

    Pastors as the center of gravity during our physical gatherings doesn’t strike me as a particularly NT idea. It seems more of a 3c Constantinian model where the “clergy” took the stage and the “lay” sit in chairs facing the stage. Personally, I think there is a far deeper sense of “purpose and beauty” when people gather together to really be together (think interactivity, chairs in a circle), not simply consumers of stage-centric presentations (passive, chairs facing forward).

    Is there a place for the stage? Sure, but I think, by and large, we’ve inherited a deeply flawed model.

  4. David (NP), thanks for your comment. You are constantly wrestling with these lay / clergy, stage / flattened, individual / collective, leadership / servantship dynamics. Very healthy, and in some ways an inspiration for this post.

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  7. Frank Viola has a whole chapter about the non-Biblical roots of the modern sermon in his book Pagan Christianity. Whether we love the Sunday Sermon tradition or hate it, it is a tradition that evolved within the context of particular cultures and religious institutions.

    There is not much point to arguing between the extremes of listening to podcasts while jogging or sermons while sitting in a pew. The bigger questions center on the role of content in the life of our faith community.

    There is a problem with disembodied content.A sermon by a preacher who is unconnected to the person in the pew is virtually as virtual as the podcast.

    The medium is the message. Better to focus on a message from someone I know and trust, even if it’s a download, then a message that comes personally from someone I cannot trust. Even better is to be in a community where we can discuss and respond to a message.

    It might make perfect sense for a small house/simple church to listen to podcasts (or any other form of electronic content) among themselves — if the members do their homework on the messenger, and perhaps also try to establish personal connections with the source. For example, a group could regularly listen to Rob Bell or Andy Stanley, but they should make some effort to connect in some fashion to the Mars Hill or North Point faith communities. We should try to put some flesh on what we’re listening to.

    What we’re seeing more and more of are people who are alienated from traditional churches, but still hungry for inspirational, challenging messages. The answer is not just to find alternative sources of content, but to find ways of integrating content and community.

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