10 reasons to stop sermons and use other learning tools.

toolbox

The “sermon” is the epicentre of most Sunday morning church services. In seminaries around the world, pastors are taught how to construct and deliver a weekly monologue. It is often the only tool they are given to help God’s people learn, change and grow.

A few years ago, we came across a learning tool which potentially does away with the need for monologue sermons. It’s called “Simply the Story“, and it was designed as a way to help non-literate cultures dig deep into God’s story and discover spiritual truths for themselves. Unlike sermons, everyone is involved. Everyone gets a chance to listen to God’s Word, retell it, explore it and apply it to their own lives and context.

Here are 10 reasons we believe churches should rely less on one-way preaching and try using an interactive approach to preaching like “Simply the Story”…

1. People aren’t good at listening. Research shows that people’s attention ebbs and flows during a sermon or lecture. At best, they have 10-15 minutes of sustained concentration for passive listening. Most sermons go well beyond this.

2. People learn more when they talk. We remember far more from a conversation we were involved in, than a monologue we listened to. Dialogue “chunks” information into smaller segments and allows people time to process, think, and ask questions when needed – helping them concentrate and stay engaged for longer.

3. People remember more. You start by listening to the Scripture spoken aloud, then retelling it in your own words, then exploring it as a group, then applying it to your circumstances. This lays down a very strong memory of God’s Word for years to come – something that rarely happens in a sermon.

4. People are more likely to pass it on. Exploring God’s story in this way empowers people to pass it on to their children, their neighbors and friends. They realise they don’t need a theological degree to understand and communicate God’s story to others.

5. Less preparation time than a sermon. The facilitator needs to take some time to memorise the Scripture passage and to study the context and background – but that is all they need to do. No hours of preparing, writing and rehearsing a well-polished speech. No need for dynamic public speaking skills and years of training.

6. More insights than a sermon. Everyone gets to share their “aha moments” and their perspective – not just one person. People get to discover spiritual truths by themselves, which has a greater impact than being “spoon fed” somebody else’s conclusions.

7. More relevance than a sermon. When a pastor prepares a sermon for a diverse congregation, he has to speak generically, not specifically to each person’s needs and context. When we come to God’s story together, we can apply the truths and principles directly to our own circumstances, both as individuals and as a community.

8. More authority than a sermon. A sermon is always about the pastor’s opinion and interpretation – the pastor is positioned as the “authority”. It is better for the combined community to go straight to the source, positioning God’s Word as the authority.

9. Less emphasis on the pastor. The system we use for church elevates the pastor above the rest of God’s people, and unintentionally sets him or her up as a mediator between God and His people. It is more powerful to give everyone the opportunity to access God’s Word directly, rather than just the “professionals”.

10. More room for the Holy Spirit to speak. Something special happens when God’s people gather together to seek His voice, His message, His will for the community. God often lays the same message on the hearts of a number of people, and a central theme becomes apparent throughout the meeting. Time and time again, we’ve seen the Holy Spirit speak through the most unlikely of people – which simply isn’t possible in the structure of a typical church service, where only one person is given a voice.

I’m not saying we have to do away with sermons altogether – but I am saying it might be nice to have more than one tool in the toolbox.

17 thoughts on “10 reasons to stop sermons and use other learning tools.

  1. We’re looking at the Parable of the Good Samaritan this week, a very well known passage.
    I’m going to give this method a go and see what comes up.

    • Cool. Let us know how it goes. Try to use an activity to get them up and moving and talking before you begin the story, rather than lulled into a passive position after singing – very hard to get people active and involved in anything after half an hour of worship songs. 🙂

      – Kathleen

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  4. I visited this website after reading this article on Sermon Central and agreeing with the ideas you put forward. But I just can’t believe the mostly negative responses you received over there, shame on them!
    I’d just like to say thank you to you for putting forward these ideas which encourage people to ‘own’ the story and feel they are then able to discuss it to a wider audience in their own words.
    God bless!

    • Thanks for your encouragement Gareth! Nice to hear something positive.

      Unfortunately, the editors at Sermon Central chose to put a very negative photo and title on my article, which is more aggressive than I would like to come across. I understand why this provokes so much pushback and offends people who have committed their lives to preaching. I’m glad some people can read past the title and understand what we’re saying.

      Blessings,

      – Kathleen

  5. I disagree with point 5. I found I spent more time grappling with the text… learning different views and readings.
    I didn’t come with all the answers, but I did come prepared for when conversation got stuck.

    • …and I bet you were the richer for it!

      The time spent digging deep into the text and memorising it pays big dividends. Sermon prep is often more about constructing a logical argument, a train of thought leading to a particular conclusion, rather than setting up space for the Holy Spirit to speak differently to different people in different circumstances.

      Blessings,

      – Kathleen

      • Sermon prep is never an argument. This all sounds like Anarchic Utopia to me! People could bring all sorts of ideas and eisegesis go the fore. In line with your train of thought they are more likely to remember. And in postmodern thought can we disagree? I mean, there are no absolutes! Where do we draw the line? Sounds great theoretically, but practically, damp squib, sorry.

        • Hi John,

          I’m guessing you’re a pastor, and these concepts threaten both your livelihood and your status. That makes it difficult for you to read this article without taking offence.

          In practice, we have never seen this approach end up in all the wild, heretical places you may expect. That’s because the entire community are present to keep theology on track, and the group is facilitated by a trained, experienced pastor. Yes, some odd theories come up sometimes – most of our congregation are recovering drug addicts with little to no church background – but more often, the most unusual people can see the deepest truths in God’s Word. My husband has been running these meetings for over three years, so we know that it works in practice as well as in theory (and many pastors around the world are moving towards interactive, dialogical approaches in church, with great results).

          • the idea of no absolute truth is a poor understanding of post-modernism, but if we leave that aside I agree there is a plethora of eisegesis. The difference with this kind of format is that it is acknowledged. The object is to first interact with the text- to meet God with all that we are. From there we can sit or unpick our ideas of who God is if we are errant.

  6. I agree with others that we should avoid the error of eisegesis (i.e. eise- “pushing into” the text a meaning or interpretation that was not originally there).

    The good news is that a method such as Simply the Story is excellent for avoiding that because it is based on an oral, inductive study of simply the story itself. Anyone who is trained in STS knows how to keep the discussion focused on what we can observe and learn from what is in the story that everyone is examining together.

    This has many advantages, one of which is that everyone is on the same playing field, since everyone is working from the same passage of Scripture, even if they had never heard it before. No one dominates and all can participate. If someone wants to run off to draw from other sources, there are ways one learns of bringing it back to the inductive study of this story we are examining.

    Likewise, if someone wants to engage in eisegesis by pushing a strange idea into the mix, a useful standard question is to ask, “Where do you see that in this story?” Because it is inductive in nature, that guards against fanciful insertion of pet ideas that don’t come from the story itself. Standard sermons are *far* more vulnerable to eisegesis than any inductive Bible study.

    I would strongly encourage anyone to go to an STS workshop and learn more about how to lead inductive Bible study in a way that is accessible to oral learners and that lets everyone participate in discovery the treasures that are there, instead of passively listening to someone lecture.

    • I don’t think we can avoid eisegesis… it’s there in every sermon, every discussion, every time we read the bible. The idea we are able to exegete a passage faithfully is simply false. It is better to acknowledge the presence of eisegesis than pretend we are correcting it.

      • I like the way you bring up big philosophical questions, Ellis (best discussed at length over coffee) – is anything we ever say or think truly “objective analysis”? Or is it all “subjective interpretation”? I agree with you that eisegesis may always be present, but that we don’t need to be so afraid of it. After all, the Holy Spirit may have different things to speak to different people at different times.

        Blessings,

        – Kathleen

    • Thanks for your input, Eric – always great to hear from someone who understands what STS is and how powerful it can be. I love seeing people leave a facilitated learning environment empowered and blown away by what they’ve learned, when they have literally “discovered” a new insight for themselves – more effective than if someone else had spelled it out for them!

      – Kathleen

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