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.