Anatomy of a Sermon: Feeding the Whole Family
Sermons are the standard--fairly or not--by which congregations judge pastors. It is the one time during the week where the whole church community gathers expectantly. What makes sermons difficult is that everyone who enters the sanctuary expects something different. Some come expecting to be entertained; others to deepen their Biblical knowledge, have an "experience" with God, or leave with a five-step plan. Sermons can be any of these things but any particular sermon can't be each of them. The disconnect between the individual expectations of the congregation and the aims and goals of the pastor can limit the effectiveness of a sermon. I hope this blog post can explain how I arrange my sermons so we can align those expectations.
It is clear from reading the Word of God that He created good food so that we may enjoy it and enjoy it together. From Passover to the Lord's Supper, God consistently uses the imagery of food to help us remember and understand. Throughout the New Testament, this imagery is used so that we may cultivate our expectation of the teaching of the things of God. Peter states,
Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good. (1 Pt 2:2).
Here, the apostle tells us that we grow by feeding on milk. By drawing the comparison with newborn babies, we understand that new Christians require simple, easy-to-digest teaching in order to grow. God has designed his Word so that the overarching message is clear and easily understandable by almost everyone--God loves you. However, there is more to this story. God is simultaneously understandable by each of His creatures and so deep and complex, we will never fully wrap our minds around Him. The word theologians use for this is "inscrutability" or not able to be scrutinized.
While we all begin our Christian lives nourished by milk, the Bible is clear God expects us to grow into the more "meaty" aspects of our journey. Too many Christians prefer the "spiritual milk" of God's Word because it demands little of them. Moving on to spiritual meat requires that we work harder to understand the deeper things of God. Furthermore, the deeper things of God require us to do the difficult work of change. However, continuing to sustain yourself on spiritual milk throughout your Christian life is as unnatural as an adolescent continuing to breastfeed.
If this analogy seems uncomfortable, awkward, or inappropriate, then we are closer to understanding Paul's heart when he wrote to the Corinthians:
Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? (1 Cor 3:2)
God designed us to grow in our relationship with Him, to move beyond the simple to the deep. Spiritual inertia is understandable. When I take my children to the museum or the amusement park, they quickly become enamored with the first cool thing they saw and wanted to linger when I knew there were other, sometimes more exciting, things to be seen as we explored. Jesus said that He came so that we can experience life to its full (Jn 10:10) and Paul said that he labors to present everyone mature in Christ (Col. 1:27-9): great things await us on this journey.
Each member of our congregation, when he or she files into our sanctuary to hear from God's Word, represents a different stage in one's journey towards maturity. Designing a sermon that feeds the most people is a big task with two basic approaches. Some preachers use, what I call, the "lowest common denominator" approach. This involves figuring our the simplest truth that everyone in the congregation can digest and use that to guide the sermon. This has the advantage of reaching most people and ensure one is rarely misunderstood. Unfortunately, this also means that we never move beyond spiritual milk.
The other method is what I call the buffet approach--a smorgasbord if you will. Instead of aiming the whole sermon at the lowest common denominator, this approach seeks to include a little bit for everyone: a little meat, a little milk, and things in between. While not everyone will enjoy everything on offer, everyone comes away with something. This also allows people to grow into the sermon, tackling the meatier things of God as they are ready. I believe this approach is the best way for our entire family to grow towards maturity--as long as we can all align our expectations a bit better.
So what should we expect when we come to hear God speak through the sermon each Sunday? Let's us start with three things:
1. Our sermons are designed to build up believers: Many churches hold to a "seeker sensitive" approach to the Sunday morning service. This means that the service is designed to attract non-believers. This approach started about fifty years ago and is not reflected in the New Testament (or for hundreds of years of church history). The church as described in the Bible is not a service or a building, but a gathered group of people who are committed to following Christ. While there will be elements or even whole services that aim at connecting with non-believers, this is not the typical approach. When you walk into Bakerstown Alliance Church, expect a sermon that builds up believers.
2. Our sermons are intended to change lives: While we hope they are enjoyable, the purpose of delivering a sermon is to give God the opportunity to speak and for you to respond. Many people leave sermons greatly affected due to the eloquence of the preacher or the use of visuals, we base our expectation on the nature of the Word of God. The Bible claims that God's Word will not return empty, that is, when you let it into your life you can't help but being changed (Isa 55:11). Sometimes a sermon has to inform so that you can be inspired to change, but our sermons not lectures or informational sessions. Sermons are effective, not because of the ability or charisma of the preacher, but because of the power of the God that speaks through His Word. Come to hear God and leave changed.
3. Our sermons require investment: Anytime one buys a new tool or app, it requires a bit of investment to understand how to get the most out of it. Buying a chainsaw and only watching 90 seconds of a five minute safety video is not recommended. Everything good in life requires work and sermons are no different. Some parts of the sermon may be easily digestible, but others will require more work: study, questions, and personal reflection. When the congregation expects to sit there are let the pastor chew their food for them, they misunderstand how we approach the sermon.
The sermon is by no means the only means by which we are fed spiritually. Personal quiet times, group bible studies, service, worship--God seeks to feed us many ways. However, the sermon is the staple for our corporate diet and I pray we can come together week after week learning to enjoy the whole menu God has provided for us to enjoy.