Let's play a word association game: what do you think of when you read the word 'sermon'? I'd hazard a guess there are some negative images and feelings in the mix. Boredom. Frustration. Being lectured at. Being talked down to. Doodling on the notice sheet. Thinking about lunch and finding your tummy is rumbling loudly.
Preaching might have an image problem, but does the problem run deeper? Is it time to rethink the entire concept?
I was interested by a Twitter thread from @SkyeJethani on June 7 and the resulting conversation. His argument was that Bible teaching worked back in the day because demand was high and supply low. With the reverse now true, he says: 'Rather than asking, "Are people coming to hear me talk on Sunday?" we should ask, "How can I best utilize ALL of the tools available to me to help people become disciples, including beyond my church programs?"'
There has been a well-documented backlash against the idea of listening to anyone speaking as an 'authority'. The constant distractions of online life have eroded our attention spans. We will only absorb information presented with multi-media embellishments: the humble word is an inadequate vehicle for persuasion and challenge.
But are any of those oft-repeated assertions actually true?
Consider the popularity of the TED talk, the resurgence in stand-up comedy, the numbers who tune in to watch televised political debates. Publishers continue to print books that are bought and read in vast numbers. A recent survey of 31,000 churchgoers in the Anglican diocese of Southwark found that occasionally-churchgoing young adults identify prayer and preaching as the things that most help them in their spiritual lives. In her novel Gilead, the great American author Marilyn Robinson writes: 'The word preacher comes from an old French word which means prophet. And what is the purpose of a prophet except to find meaning in trouble?' In these dark days, who is not searching for meaning in trouble?
Sam is 26 and lives in Boston, USA. He's a committed Christian and as he considers his move back to the UK this summer, one of his top priorities is finding a church. What, you might be wondering, will guide his decision making? Will he be looking for a vibrant community, with plenty of other twenty-somethings to hang out with? Will he be swayed by the skills of the band or the mid-week activities or the quality of the after-service coffee? None of the above. Sam is primarily interested in the preaching.
He says: 'I work in quite a fast paced business environment and to me it is far more important that I am equipped for my week at work than if the band sounded perfect on a Sunday. We are supposed to be a representation of Jesus to our colleagues and I take that very seriously. To do that, I need the Holy Spirit but I also need clear practical direction, taken directly from the Bible and delivered by someone who is specifically gifted in teaching it.'
Sam isn't interested in the thoughts of the preacher on a given topic; he wants access to the Bible. He explains he is looking for the preacher to be 'able to draw out the meaning of a particular passage within its original context. But also to then explain how and if that translates for us today... There are other aspects around public speaking that I really appreciate, like humour, charisma and quick wit, as well as being succinct in explanation of the thought trail. But the exposition of the biblical text is something I think is of great importance.'
What Sam has put his finger on is perhaps the reason why preaching is not dead and must not be allowed to die. The sermon is a way of feeding the hungry with biblical nourishment – words of life that sustain, transform, equip and inspire the people of God in their specific context.
It is because we believe in preaching that London School of Theology and Preach magazine are running the Sermon of the Year competition. Finals are being held on June 22, from 7-8.30 pm at London School of Theology in Northwood. All are welcome and free tickets can be booked here: http://bit.ly/2s5dwrC
Jo Swinney is editor of Preach and author of 'Home: the quest to belong' (Hodder, June 2017).