In the past, I’ve nearly alienated several preachers, befriended one or two, and unfairly ignored the most patient one of the bunch for a while. I was generally put off by the suggestion that the worship and scriptures should necessarily support the sermon, but I rather enjoyed some collaboration with the preacher when I was planning other portions of the church gathering. Put another way: I liked knowing something about the sermon so I could support it and bridge to it, but I didn’t want a preacher (often rather ignorantly) telling me which songs to select. But preachers often seem to assume that other activities should revolve around them. This tradition is not entirely their fault. It’s a whole ball o’ wax that related to the fact that the preacher is likely paid for his services, so, well, I guess, we ought to assume his stuff is the center. But is it? Or should it always be?
For two or three decades, I have felt that sermons are overemphasized in church gatherings. It’s not so much the preachers that are the problem. Most of them are decent people trying, decently, to teach good things based on their flawed understanding. The problem can be located with the people who, either de jure or de facto, let the preachers take over.
Then again, sometimes preachers contribute materially to the problem. After a Bible class, greetings, worship, edification, and the Lord’s Supper, a preacher says, “Let’s go to the Lord in prayer before we get started.” He referred, of course, to the sermon he was about to start. But we had been “going” for 30 minutes even after we all got into the same room.¹ At best, he was continuing; he might also be said to have been interjecting or diverting!
To an extent, the Reformation altered the course of Christian history toward instruction as opposed to worship. Sermon time became central. Not that any Reformed folks now would own that (thinking falsely that they have a corner on worship and theological instruction!). Still, it is the rare Protestant church that exhibits a participatory paradigm over a presentational one.
I happened on a blog the other day in which a praise band tech guru was providing “wisdom” on how to respond to people who complain that the music is too loud. Rarely if ever was the truth of the accusation actually entertained, but that’s beside my point here. I noted that the writer asserted that loud praise band music encourages congregational singing. And I spoke out loud, to myself, at my desk: “You’ve got to be kidding.”
Actually, participatory congregational singing can be promoted by either hymnals or projected music (somewhat less so, in the case of projected lyrics-only, unless the song is committed to memory by most). And actually, less congregational investment/involvement is experienced when praise band or worship team is used—especially so when such a group is really loud. The people in the pews tend toward auditing and observing, not singing. The opinion shared to the contrary shows me that the person writing either has vastly different experience than mine, or has no idea what’s actually happening “in the pews” while he is on stage, or both.
An extra bit on hymnals is here.
In the final analysis, presentations breed an audience mentality and often lead to a lack of involvement, and even a lack of understanding that one is part of something bigger—and not alone. Moreover, despite the good intentions of good praise bands with good sound mixing, they are largely presentational, not aiding or facilitating participatory experiences.
Now to a topic related to how much we are together, participating, and not alone “in church.” . . .
A recent podcast by Thom Schultz called attention to “lonely kids” by quoting Josh Packard:
“Attendance alone is not a protective factor against social isolation,” he says.
How can this be? Part of the problem may exist within the dominant model employed at church and youth groups. It’s a presentational model. The communication flows predominantly from the person at the front with a microphone. The lonely individuals sit quietly while someone else does all the talking. Conversation is not emphasized.
Packard said that “nearly 40 percent of kids report that they have no one to talk to, and attending religious groups or gatherings does not have an affect, unless they have a relationship with an adult who cares.”
This new research should encourage all of us to rethink how we structure our ministries. Now, more than ever, it’s time to engage people in fully relational approaches to ministry. And it’s not only a matter of addressing loneliness. It’s a matter of mission and message. Packard said, “If you don’t have relationship, you can’t assume they believe anything you say.”
– Thom Schultz