Sermon-Centricity on Sunday

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We have witnessed an overabundance of resources for worship renewal during the last three or more decades. These resources have addressed a variety of issues, including the role of music in worship, the historical roots of worship, the formation of spiritually transformative liturgies, and the like. In contrast, little attention has been given to the role of the sermon. Yet, according to a recent survey, the sermon is the focal point of the Sunday service. Here’s the backstory to that research.

The major challenge facing any instructor teaching a class entitled “Current Practices in Worship” is discovering current practices and trends in Christian worship. With few resources at our disposal, my class of twenty students at Northern Seminary (Lombard, IL) developed and conducted a survey of over eighty congregations located between Chicago and Rockford, IL. After the surveys were concluded, students FaKelia Guyton and Samuel Cocar helped me gather, summarize and interpret the data.

As exciting as it is to conduct research ‘on the ground’ of Evangelical church culture, as with any sociological research into the practices and perspectives of a certain people group, we need to concern ourselves with questions of statistical validity. Is our sample size large enough to extrapolate to the general population? What kind of differences in respondents can be counted as statistically significant? And so forth.

In this case, our sample size of eighty Protestant congregations occupies a territory somewhere between anecdote and complete empiricism. Hard data is always better than vague speculation, even when the data is more suggestive than conclusive.

One of the clearest conclusions, statistically speaking, from our sample concerned the focal point of the church service. Just over 86% of the churches (69 respondents) cited the sermon as the cornerstone of the Sunday gathering. The other four options combined garnered only 11 combined responses. These broke down as follows: the Lord’s Supper (4 respondents), prayer (1 respondent), music (1 respondent), and fellowship (5 respondents).

It is a staggering figure, and one which overwhelms the usual questions of statistical validity. Nor can it be ascribed simplistically to a sampling bias. This aggregate of churches is emphatically not dominated by traditions and demographics which one might more strongly associate with a homiletical focus. In other words, the sample is not predominated by Euro-American, Baptist and Reformed churches.

Indeed, our sample is one that not only reflects racial diversity but cuts across a wide swath of denominational affiliations, from Missionary Baptist and Lutheran to Assemblies of God, United Methodist and Mennonite. Incidentally, although the liberal-conservative polarity has become strained beyond its capacity to accurately categorize the range of Christian beliefs, this affirmation of the sermon as the focal point of the service seems invariable to extend to those on both the Left and Right — socially, politically, and theologically. If anything, one might have expected the large bloc of Pentecostal and Charismatic churches to temper this focus by opting for prayer, fellowship, or music, given their corporately expressive mode(s) of worship.

And yet, the sermon prevails. One wonders if even Roman Catholics would be as univocal in proclaiming the Eucharist as the center of their worship service. The sermon focus of the sampled Protestant churches represents something remarkable; namely, unenforced unity. No American denomination hires policy managers to steer unruly congregants’ attention toward the sermon and away from other liturgical focal points. The placement of the sermon as the center of worship does not result from the enforcement of any formal policies or incentives. Instead, it reflects something of a common Reformational heritage, extending even to those Protestant traditions which sprang into existence after the sixteenth century (e.g., the Wesleyan tradition, Baptists).

The sermon-as-focal-point also testifies to the unique nature of the sermon. Namely, it is a flexible and polyvalent medium of communication. If such a wide variety of traditions can identify the Sunday morning sermon as integral to spiritual formation and ecclesial practice, it suggests that the medium itself is a veritable chimera. Indeed, while Biblical exposition is at its core, the sermon can be prophetic, moral exhortation, narrative. In can also serve a more therapeutic or pastoral care function. That so many functions could be fulfilled by variations of one medium suggests its tremendous adaptability and persuasive power.

Lastly, the survey allows us to conclude that the sermonic focus of the Sunday service appears built into the warp and woof of the Protestant mind and heart. Consequently, if church leaders in low-church traditions — such as the Brethren, Baptists, and Bible Churches — want to explore the transformative potential of other liturgical expressions, they can do so with little fear that their congregants will start dismissing the importance of the spoken Word. 

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Community Builder

John, thanks for the feedback. I hope the blog did not come off as prescriptive (suggesting the need for change). It was only meant to be descriptive of the worship life of eighty Protestant congregations in Northern Illinois. 

As for the sample, in a short blog it is difficult to offer all the details of the survey. I wish I could  have included the names of the congregations which participated in the survey. It was a very diverse group, reflecting the diversity of the student body at Northern Seminary. The sample included a large number of non-denominational congregations and representatives from many denominations.

Of course, the diversity of the sample is both a strength and weakness. It would have been beneficial to survey eighty congregations of one denomination or one theological tradition. But it was equaly beneficial to see the similarities between congregations of different theological traditions, cultures, races, econmics, worship styles, sizes, and neighborhoods. And one similarity was the centrality of the sermon.

If 86% consider the sermon as the central part of Sunday worship, it would seem that the decision on joining a church, or even attending on a given Sunday is a function of the characteristics of the sermon, and by inference, of the efforts of pastor in preparing and delivering that sermon. If true, that would lay the responsibility for church growth largely on the shoulders of the pastor. Is that another one of the take aways of this study?

Community Builder

Ed, thanks for weighing in on the connection between the sermon and church growth. Seems to me that, through casual observation, we see a connection between the quality of preaching and church growth - in some but not all contexts. Yet, I don't think my survey, as constructed, makes that a necessary connection (as in A + B = C). We simply asked the leader of the worship ministry of each church about the focal point of the service, a question which probes the design of the Sunday service. Still, I agree with the connection you make to sermon preparation. Surely, if the sermon is the focal point, preachers best bring their best. And, if God so allows, the fruit of such efforts may be the spiritual and perhaps numeric growth of the congregation.

Community Builder

You are right on.  Thanks for the qualifier.

Thank you Sam for reminding us once again of the importance of the preaching of the Word and why it is and always will be considered one of the 3 marks of the true church.

Participant

Having read (and appreciated) this article, I just ran accross this today...
http://www.desiringgod.org/blog/posts/the-centerpiece-of-sunday-worship
This supports what you have found about the centrality of preaching God's Word.

Community Builder

Thanks, Ken, for the reference to Piper.  Good stuff.

 

My reaction to the survey is a resounding "duh."  Since reformation churches have been experiencing the "centrality of the sermon" for centuries, it's no wonder that the people on the pew think it's the main event. 

The real issue is what we left behind in this historical evolution. What we left behind is the dual foci of word and sacrament that goes all the way back to the New Testament and early church (and was advocated by Calvin himself). 

Today there is a remarkable movement across the board, from Reformed to Pentecostal, of balancing the Word with the Eucharist every Lord's Day. For example, check out the number of CRC and RCA church plants that have instituted weekly Eucharist from the start. If you attend a church that has rediscovered this ancient practice, you will realize that the sermon is enriched, embodied, and affirmed when the congregation gathers at the table to receive Christ in the bread and wine. 

As Dutch theologian Von Alman put it: ending the service without the Supper is like ending a sentence with a colon rather than a period.  Something important and climactic is missing. 

 

Community Builder

Thanks Len, for your enthusiastic support of the weekly celebration of the Lord's Supper. 

Of course, in our survey we did not take a particular position on frequency but we did ask the question. Of the Protestant congregations surveyed 20% celebrate the Lord's Supper each week, 67% once a month, 10% less than once per month, and 3% two to three times a month.

I don't know if those stats confirm your assertion of a movement of including the Lord's Supper every week.Perhaps there are other surveys to which we may compare this data?