Lectures As The Worst Way To Learn, Or Why Sermons Are So 1677 (Part 2)

Last week I introduced my first ever formal series asking questions about our beloved church tradition of hearing semons every week, which I’ll be posting (coincidentally) weekly until you unsubscribe.

The classic image of going to church in America is of well-dressed people sitting in purple-cushioned pews, and of most of the men nearly whacking their heads on said pews. As a kid I certainly fell asleep during the sermon, and my body even learned to lean towards my father who wouldn’t startle me away with a well-aimed poke like my mother.

Homer had better stamina than me as a kid.

We’ve known for years that people don’t learn through hearing and speeches. If they do, repetition is the key. Like, a lot of it. This is why communications professors in college pound into their students’ brains that they need to incorporate other mediums into their speech. Yet for some reason every church I’ve ever attended, including ones I’ve visited just once, feature a minimum 30 minute sermon.

Sure, these days you gotta have a sweet sermon trailer or video to start things off, but after that it’s all talk talk talk, aside from an occasional Lord of The Rings scene shown (which for the record are lost on me as I’ve never seen any of the movies).

If you’ve gone through college how many lectures do you remember? I loved my chosen field of study (sociology), however 5 years later I don’t think I can name that same number of lectures I remember. You could argue they became embedded in me, even if I don’t overtly remember them, but even then I don’t think I retained much of what I learned. And I had to study it over and over again post lecture in order to pass the class, so the stakes were much higher than a Sunday morning sermon.

Similarly, we learn from doing, not hearing – and sermons offer little opportunity for us to do what we’ve learned. We must be dedicated and independent – trying it out without any further direction from our teacher. Instead, most of us just leave church having gotten our fill.

To connect with last week’s point – we’ve chosen our method of discipleship as education. And though we most certainly learn to be disciples this is something that’s best passed down like an apprenticeship rather than broadcast and wrapped in bullet points.

Have you ever seen a sermon time that wasn’t so heavy on education or used participation? Do you retain what you learn from sermons? 

Disclaimer: as with my of the points I make in this series please know I’m not throwing the whole sermon thing out, but rather I’m point out some flaws so that if we continue to use the sermon it’ll be more balanced.

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23 Responses to Lectures As The Worst Way To Learn, Or Why Sermons Are So 1677 (Part 2)

  1. The church we’re leaving is the most teaching-heavy, long-sermoned church I’ve ever been a part of, and boy do I get what you’re saying. I’m interested in hearing your future posts in which (I hope) you offer suggestions for alternatives. Good thoughts here.

  2. Darius says:

    I think the key is not to get rid of sermons, but help the congregants engage it better. What my church tries to do is not only have sermon notes, but also encourage small groups to discuss the sermon later in the week, post snip-its of the sermon on Facebook, run a blog on a sermon series, etc. I think this goes a long way to helping the more mentally lazy and distracted people retain more of the sermon.

    • definitely a good step – and this helps the whole repetition thing which is key. What would be even better is allowing the congregation to engage with the pastor about the topic – but I suspect the pastor doesn’t have the time or energy to do a weekly tour of small groups! I like that they don’t just leave it hanging Sunday when everyone goes out for fried chicken.

  3. Darius says:

    Of course, we’ve got excellent pastors who can really preach well, so many folks learn a lot just from hearing it Sunday morning.

    • I could easily write another post in this series about how some well trained pastors just aren’t very good teachers. I’ve never really gotten much out of worship music til I started attending the church where I met my wife, but the sermons, well, they’re all but impossible to listen to. So all that to say having a skilled teacher is so key, I’m glad you have that.

  4. David says:

    As always the real difference is between an inspired word for God and religion. I bet the Pharisees preached a lot of sermons and did a lot of teaching in Saturday morning. So, what was it about Jesus preaching fro the same Scriptures? We don’t know that he was a great speaker – but his words burned in people. Paul was able to preach all night, and people stayed around ALL NIGHT! Peter gets out there and preaches a sermon on the day of Pentecost (drunk in the spirit no less) and thousands get saved.

    I see this debate as folks suffering from religion. Boring sermons are boring even if they are 5 minutes, but the one the is on fire there is no need to look at a watch! I have actually been to churches where leadership removed a clock in the sanctuary so that hopefully people would not be aware of how long the teaching was. LOL Religion, it’s a killer!

    These things are spiritually discerned, not debated. If you read 1 Corinthians 14 services are no supposed to all the be same.

    I hate boring sermons – you can usually find me in the hallway yakking it up with a wayward teen who feels the same.

    • great point – I fear that our weekly demand for a sermon makes it more routine for the preacher – and maybe it’s difficult to spark the fire when it’s on a schedule. That’s so funny the church removed a clock – if people were looking at the clock then maybe that’s a sign the trouble isn’t with the people but with the preacher!

  5. Larry Hughes says:

    I would have to think sermons are a way to educate the unlearned on God’s words and that is a nice idea. However, A one size fits all sermon is not the way to go for the better educated in scriptures. Most at that tenure need and want to be more active in the sermons and voice their opinions.

    I personally believe we do need certain levels of sermons or activities that would keep all engaged or at least awake for 30 minutes.

    • I would love if I could be active and have an opinion – I wouldn’t approach it from the angle of “teaching” but simply trying to wrestle with a passage or an idea to be understand it. I agree that the sermon could be very useful for the unlearned – but let’s be honest if you’ve been going to church all your life then your probably overlearned.

  6. Chris says:

    “We’ve known for years that people don’t learn through hearing and speeches.”

    Sorry, but this just isn’t true. It’s far too generalizing of a statement. *Some* people don’t learn through hearing and speeches. Some do. Some learn through doing. Some learn through watching. There are several different learning styles and categories for different individuals. Could it be that the sermons you’ve heard just aren’t speaking your language? I could be wrong but I’m guessing that if you had Donald Miller giving the sermon on Sunday you might find a bit more value in it. I’ve been in church when all I could do was keep looking at my watch to time the sermon to know when it would be over. There have been other sermons, or talks where a person had something truly of value to say that kept me engaged and leaning in the whole time. What is the amount that is absorbed and that really sticks over time? It varies, I think from person to person. But I repeat, I think we have a category error here. Don’t confuse the function of the sermon with that of discipleship or even that of living in love as a community that changes a person in a different way. There is a place for the proclamation of the Word of God and it is necessary.

    • I definitely could have been less extreme in how I worded that. However I still hold that the majority of people don’t learn from just hearing speeches. Undeniably I’ve heard good sermons – dozens even. It can be done, though it isn’t done often in my opinion.

  7. theoldadam says:

    Good sermons are not for teaching (that is the task of the Bible study, after the worship service in our church) but rather they are for proclamation.

    Yes, one may learn something from a good sermon, but the goal is not that, but rather to kill, and then raise again (law and gospel).

  8. Carolyn says:

    I do agree that it is hard to have a time for proclaiming the Gospel for newbies, a learning time for oldies, and a corporate worship time all in one service. At some point we start cutting into somebody’s football watching time. Heaven forbid we do that. What is sad is that so many of us use “it’s been the same old thing for years and years” as an excuse to leave. And not go anywhere else. So nobody is around who wants to try to change things. That doesn’t really help either. It would be nice if we could all have a Charles Spurgeon (a live one) as our preacher. He had something that needed saying. But he is gone and it might be impossible to find somebody who can hold our attention. We evidently prize our attention highly and are not willing to share it with anybody who does not captivate us. I wonder if that is not pride – thinking that we are so important that a speaker must fulfill all our needs before we’ll believe he/she has something to say. That was a new thought. I’ll have to examine that more closely. I just wish that there was a one-size-fits all answer (purely to make it easier). All of that said, my depression and anxiety has had me locked inside the house so much that I haven’t been attending anywhere lately. And if I am able to get out anytime soon, I’m unsure of where I’ll go. Hubby and I are at very different places in our spiritual walks, so finding a place… wait, I was just about to type that we needed to find a place that meets both our needs. Scratch that though. I’m going to be praying for God to lead me where I can be of maximum use in His plan. And I’ll be praying that I’ll be the type of person who gets her needs met by participating in that plan. Thanks for making me think.

    • well Carolyn I could thank you as well, as your comment certainly made me think too. Its funny you say that about football – I definitely skipped church one Sunday to watch a Seahawks play-off game. Want to hear something terrible? Sunday is usually family day for us, and church, well, throws it off. We get a late start on a day trip to the lakes, or we have to cut family breakfast short to get there. I think I’d rather go Friday night so I can have my days free. But then it’s all about me, as you pointed out. I can see how it seems prideful that we reserve our attention only to those who deserve it – but at the same time if someone is going to command our attention EVERY WEEK for 45 minutes, well I hope that they’d try to make it impactful. If anything that only adds to the urgency and importance of their message, as well as our ability to retain it.

      • Carolyn says:

        Charlie, I seriously doubt any of them are NOT trying to be impactful. I’m not going to be the one to walk up to someone and tell them, “your sermons are boring”. I’ll stand behind you and watch you do it though. 😉 It is very hard to meet the sermon needs of every member of the congregation every week. And if you know the preacher will only meet your needs sometimes, do you only go sometimes hoping that you will catch him when he is speaking to you? Or do you go support the other members of your congregation as they are trying to listen and learn about God? I have heard persuasive, impassioned arguments on both sides of this. And where I come down is that I think we are all (me included) selfish and self-centered. We only want to give God time that meets our needs and our schedule. We will not sacrifice in any way. If He calls us to be bored for an hour, even if it is to support that bumbling preacher who really tries but falls short of the mark, we are going to balk. God has asked us to sacrifice ourselves in many ways. But we – Americans especially – have gotten so used to being entertained that we won’t give our attention to anyone who isn’t completely riveting. We are sure we can find a bigger, better deal and we assume that the point of corporate worship is all about us instead of the Almighty. Not sure that He would, but Charlie, if Jesus walked straight up to you and said, “Dude, I need you to be bored silly for eight hours straight every week to help this other guy out”, what would you do? If you knew you needed to be there to be part of God’s plan for someone else, would you sacrifice a little of yourself to do it? (for an hour) I don’t claim to know what any of this looks like to Him, but I really am convinced that we spend way too much time trying to find how everything best works for us instead of best working for Him. Me included. Just for self-disclosure (so I don’t look like I think I’ve got it all put together), Hubby and I are having a hard time agreeing on where to go. I’m at the point where I wish he would just tell me where we had to go, but he won’t do that. But we come from vastly different backgrounds and finding a church that we both feel good about is hard. And yes, “feeling good about” includes my selfish wants that really don’t have anything to do with God’s work. Boredom isn’t our particular issue – ours is “style”. I am so glad that Hubby does not know that I am commenting here – don’t want to tip my hand that it is just my selfishness. 😉

      • Carolyn – SO SORRY for the delayed reply – somehow this one slipped by my radar and it wasn’t til days later I saw you posted this.

        I definitely hear what you are saying and I easily agree that we’ve lost the art of sacrifice. Though for me I’m questioning why we even need sermons – not at all – but so freaking regularly. My utopian dream for church uses them more sparingly. I don’t think there is a church mold so I can’t outline for you precisely what I think church should be – as you acknowledge not one way fits all. However I think the North American church has acted as if there is in fact a mold – tour 20 churches in a town and easily 19 of the follow a mold.

        Hopefully you are tracking with what I’m saying. That dilema you raised – do you go for yourself or to support others – to me the better way is instead of passively listening to a sermon that may apply sometimes we should encourage more direct fellowship which will breed discipleship. Some weeks I may be able to pour into that person who needs it, and other weeks they may actually pour into me, and other weeks we may pour into others – but we aren’t going for some imaginary obligation but in fact we are going to grow and to serve.

        So maybe this series in an unintentionally back-handed way for me to deconstruct the Sunday morning service and wonder if it is best with less structure (I won’t say none).

        Oh and it’s too late I’ve already tracked down your husband online and spilled all the beans. That’s the kind of guy I am 🙂

  9. Amy says:

    Actually, the sermon is my favorite part of the whole service!!! I LOVE IT!!! I mean, as long as Andy Stanley or someone equally as interesting is giving the talk. 🙂 Despite the problems I’ve had with church, a lack of good solid teachers has not been a problem in my teen and adult years. I mean, there’s a guy that off here and there, but my youth pastors and senior pastors have been gifted teachers. Now some of my seminary professors were pretty boring…. 🙂

    • wow we have not had similar experiences at all. I used to volunteer with kids during the sermon because the messages were so boring. You may ask why wouldn’t I just not go at all – but in all honesty I wasn’t in the mood to answer to my parents or countless others why I wasn’t going to church (I went to a college group meeting but that didn’t count as church in their eyes).

      Oddly enough, most of my professors were incredibly engaging – probably because sociology actually brought them life. I could see seminary topics actually being a bit dull and technical. How ironic.

  10. Sugel says:

    Johnson Junior……Monday 27 June 2011 17 20…..When it comes to writing sermons all pastors have taken courses in preaching and their shelves are filled with excellent books on homiletics. But how do church officers and other members learn to listen to sermons? One way is to return to some of the classics on preaching and remind ourselves what its essence really is..A book that I revisit when my sermons are getting flat one I often recommend to new pastors is Heralds of God by James S.

    • sorry for the delayed response – your post ended up in my spam folder mysteriously and I didn’t see it til now. I imagine it’s easy to get complacent in writing sermons, as it’d be easy to fall into the grind of churning one out week after week in addition to a myriad of other duties without pausing to ponder the greater thing your doing…

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