Is it time to retire the sermon?

George Whitefield preaching in the 18th century
George Whitefield preaching in the 18th century

When my daughter was taking courses for her Education degree, she told me her teachers kept repeating, “Whatever you do, don’t just stand up there and talk.” The lecture method of teaching has been found to be one of the least effective ones, especially for those who are not auditory learners. According to research, people remember 10% or less of what they hear in a lecture (or sermon). This isn’t surprising since the average adult attention span is only about seven minutes.

Those in the educational field are focusing more on active learning styles, where students don’t just listen but actually read, write, discuss, and engage in solving problems. Even in situations where the lecture is used, attempts are being made to engage students more through audio-visual aids, a period of discussion afterwards, and other techniques.

Although we do see those who give sermons starting to add PowerPoint slides and other visuals and some are even accepting text messages during their sermons, in the vast majority of churches the sermon is basically just one person standing up there and talking for anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour. Although an individual may be inspired by something said in a sermon, most of it is not heard or retained by the vast majority of people.

A lengthy sermon which gives the background of the scripture readings and clarifies theological and doctrinal points might have been needed when many people were illiterate or had limited access to sources of information, but that is not the case today. Thom Schultz blogging about the perfect length for a sermon says that the sermon’s goal should not be “to dispense information. We’re drowning in information. We no longer need an information middleman. We need a transformation guide.” He also adds that the length of the sermon is not the point. “The point is . . . the point. However long or short it takes to make a lasting point. Using a variety of supporting ideas, scriptures, stories, visuals, experiences and interaction, an effective message might take 20 or 30 minutes. Or it may take five minutes.”

But do we even need to have a sermon each week in our worship services? Are there more effective ways to get the message across? And is sermon preparation the best use of a pastor’s time? A recent informal survey indicated that 70% of pastors spend 10-18 hours in sermon preparation. I wonder what would happen if pastors could take those hours and use them in other ways.

I’m not saying we need to eliminate the sermon entirely. But it doesn’t need to happen every single Sunday and, when there is a sermon, it can be delivered more effectively using active learning techniques. It also doesn’t have to be the pastor’s responsibility; using other speakers not only gives the pastor a break but also introduces the congregation to different viewpoints. On weeks when there isn’t a sermon the message can be communicated in different ways, perhaps with small group discussion, a short video, or a dialogue between two or more speakers.

Yes, I know to some of you this is close to heresy. You can’t imagine a worship service without the traditional sermon. And yes, many pastors see the weekly sermon as an important part of their ministry and feel they grow spiritually through their sermon prep each week. So the sermon will probably be around for a while, but perhaps it’s time to start the conversation. Any takers?

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2 thoughts on “Is it time to retire the sermon?

  1. Of course I zoomed in on your point about how sermons are brutal (my word, not yours) for people who are not auditory learners. Maybe we can’t do away with the sermon but this is why I’m such a fierce advocate for inviting congregants to post/text/tweet during sermons. Those people are generally visual-kinesthetic learners who probably cannot take in the sermon any other way.

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    • Yes, too often people assume that someone on a cell phone during a worship service is not engaged with what’s going on when just the opposite may be true. I also think it would be good to let people doodle, play with clay, etc. during a sermon as studies show people retain more while listening when they’re involved in something that requires movement.

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