Are Sermons Worthwhile?

There is a lot of anti-sermon sentiment being expressed these days. Recently, a friend posted an Alan Knox quote on Facebook: "If people rarely learn to do through lecture, why do we continue to put so much focus on lecture in the church (the sermon)."

It raises the question, "Is the sermon useless?"

Obviously, I believe in the power of the sermon. It's part of my ministry to deliver one every week. But notice here a theme that will continue throughout this article. My belief in the power of the sermon causes me to deliver them every week. I wouldn't do this if I believed sermons were ineffective. My actions are influenced by my belief. Beliefs are very important.

Sermons are not as effective as standing by your neighbor's side and helping them through a situation. Nobody is arguing that they are. Sermons play a different role. The role of a sermon is to help many people at one time on a mass scale. We don't have to decide between listening to sermons or helping our neighbor on an individual level. That is unless you are one of the highly scheduled people who only has one hour of free time each week. "Should I use the only hour I have available to go sing songs to God with my brothers and sisters in Jesus and listen to a sermon or should I just use that time to help my neighbor?" Most of us don't face that dilemma. The sermon and the individual life of loving one another work best in tandem. A sermon doesn't teach "how to love your neighbor"; it teaches "why you should love your neighbor" and inspires you to do it. The "how-to" will vary from person to person, but the inspiration and encouragement should be universal.

Modern church culture teeters on the precipice of belief. I frequently encounter the idea, "Belief doesn't matter; all that matters is action." It is true that belief without action is meaningless, but that does not correlate that belief is meaningless. Belief influences and inspires our action. Without belief, we wouldn't have the action. Our lack of action only shows our belief in the wrong things.

Harvard Magazine recently published Eric Manz' The Decline of the Lecture. A quote from it was repeated on Scot McKnight's blog, Professors: What about lectures?, which was then reprinted at Alan Knox' post Sermons sound like a great idea, but what are people getting from them?:
When Mazur speaks to audiences on pedagogy, he asks his listeners to think about something they are really good at—perhaps some skill they are proud of, especially one that advanced their career. “Now, think of how you became good at it,” he says next. Audience members, supplied with wireless clickers, can choose from several alternatives: trial and error, apprenticeship, lectures, family and friends, practicing. Data from thousands of subjects make “two things stand out,” Mazur says. “The first is that there is a huge spike at practicing—around 60 percent of the people select ‘practicing.’” The other thing is that for many audiences, which often number in the hundreds, “there is absolutely zero percent for lectures. Nobody cites lectures.”
Mazur's question is rigged. Having a person name something they are really good at would lead one to answer with an action. You don't learn actions in a lecture. A lecture would not be the best place to teach someone how to file records in an office, program a computer, or fix a car. But if the question was to name a belief, where you learned it, and how it influences your life, then you would encounter the power of the lecture. And that belief might cause one to file records as quickly as possible because they value honest pay for honest work. Another belief might cause a programmer to try some experimental code because she values creativity. And belief can cause a car mechanic to be excellent in what he does because he values the importance of doing things right. Beliefs operate on a different level than practical applications. If being a follower of Christ was only practical applications, then we should get rid of the sermon. But it's so much more.

The sermon does not really operate in the realm of practice but in the realm of belief and inspiration. It is the firm conviction of most who deliver sermons that beliefs are important, that they influence peoples practice. Sermons help build the belief structure that is the foundation for application. We see many people who are struggling in life because they have wrong beliefs that cause their wrong actions. Now, we could force them to do the right actions through some experimental learning exercise, but their lives will not be fixed until they actually transform the belief that is causing them to do the bad action.

The church isn't teaching the science of Christianity but the art of living like Jesus. Good art exudes from the core of a person, from their beliefs and feelings. Boring art is procedural and replicable. Great art inspires people to view the world differently. Boring art just placates for a moment. A sermon deals in the realm of beliefs, feelings, and worldview. I measure a good sermon on whether the people that heard it are going to change because of hearing it. True, the end goal is a change in action, but that change will come about through a change in beliefs, feelings, and worldview along with the motivation to overcome what they need to conquer.

Auditory learners (around 30% of people) actually learn best from lectures. So at worst, a sermon is a good learning tool for 30% of all people. Combine the lecture with a good, complimentary Powerpoint presentation and you get the visual learners (around 65% of people ). So a good sermon with a good visual Powerpoint will reach 95% of the people involved. You will still have problems with the Tactile learners (around 5% of people), but thankfully a church is not only the Sunday Morning gathering. Stats come from the Center on Education and Training for Employment at The Ohio State University.

Steve Holmes replied to Scot McKnight's blog, Professors: What about lectures? :
I reviewed almost all the academic literature on the worth of lectures for a book on preaching I’m writing just now. It is, I think it is fair to say, inconclusive – as many studies found lectures to be better than other forms as found them to be worse. That is, in terms of promoting student learning of material; if you factor in efficiency of academic time, lecturing probably beats any other mode of delivery other than sophisticated online self-directed learning modules).
 At the same time, there is a large body of communications literature that stresses the peerless superiority of the set-piece monologue – when done well – in selling vision (why did Steve Jobs launch his products at keynotes? why do politicians make speeches on the campaign trail? it’s not because they can’t be bothered to do something better…)
Which raises the question – what are we trying to do when we lecture/preach? Tell people something they don’t know? Or inspire them to live out what they do know? In the case of preaching, I know the answer to that one…
You can talk to any preacher, and they will be able to share with you times that a sermon they have shared has been used by God to change lives. It is a humbling and extraordinary act to be involved in. I have delivered sermons where people weep because of the healing they are receiving regarding some past emotional pain. I have also delivered sermons where people's lives are changed because they discard a past, destructive habit. And I have delivered sermons where nothing happens because I wrote a bad sermon. The problem isn't the medium, it's the methods. As preachers, we have to continually hone our craft to bring about God's will in the lives of our listeners.

Most of the resistance I see to sermons are people who don't want to hear any view different than their own. They want their life the way they want it and don't want input from others. It fits very well in the American gospel of individualism. In this day and age, we can get all our news from sources that are filtered through the viewpoint we already have. We can ignore the "friend" on Facebook who continues to state things that don't align with our worldview. We can get radio that plays only music we like. This is all dangerous. We need to stretch ourselves and allow ourselves to listen to other viewpoints because, in the end, we will discover that some of the things we currently believe are wrong.

Disclaimer: I try to listen to around two sermons a week from other preachers because they inspire me and challenge me to view things differently.

For further reading, Adam Kotsko gives a good defense of the lecture at Inside Higher Ed: A Defense of the Lecture. The general idea is that people have to have a good framework of thought prior to being thrown into a discussion.