I have recently concluded that I just don’t do well in church—”church” meaning the standard, evangelical Sunday morning gathering where “worship” means singing songs and serves as a warm-up to the main act, the Sermon.
At this point in my life, I find that I go to church for 2 main reasons. One is to refocus and connect to God. The 2nd reason is social, to connect with people. I never go to church looking forward to a 1/2 hour of overly loud rock & roll worship choruses or a 45 minute sermon. Never, unless there’s a specific guest speaker.
There are a number of reasons why I don’t do well in many contemporary churches, including that it seems they don’t really have a grasp on why it is they are meeting on Sunday mornings in the first place. It’s rare to find a church with a true sense of purpose. Often, it seems that they meet because it’s Sunday morning, and that’s when churches meet. This kind of circular reasoning becomes quite evident after a very short time as the focus becomes just keeping the wheel turning. And, if they can’t demonstrate a clear sense of purpose for being there, what’s my purpose for being there?
Another reason why I don’t do well in some of these churches the fact that the sermon has become the focus, and pastors think they need to talk for a half hour or (usually) longer whether they have anything to say or not. The truth is, I’ve heard many, many sermons in my lifetime, but relatively few that justified 30-45 minutes of my time. Even the best teachers/speakers can have a few stellar sermons, but I’ve never known anyone who can pull off a decent sermon every single Sunday morning.
How Sermons Became Center
A friend of mine recently directed me to a post by Robin Phillips which does a great job of summarizing the shift from the early Eucharist-based worship to a cognitive-focused approach to church. He writes,
What changed in the centuries following the reformation was more a question of what is the center of worship? If our implicit operating assumption is that we are primarily defined by what we think, then we will view church as first and foremost a vehicle for preaching the Word, for giving doctrinal instruction and for equipping the saints for another week of thinking correct thoughts. This is in contrast to a more sacramental and liturgical view of worship (and indeed, of life) which recognizes that love for Christ must be cultivated not primary through hearing correct doctrine, important as that is, but through the embodied practices of communal ritual, through material practices that educate our desires and, in so doing, shape our identity in ways that are often pre-cognitive.
Phillips points out that initially the shift to the sermon-centered service corresponded with a shift towards rationalism and a belief in the mind’s ability to know and understand truth.
When the Rationalism Fades
What I find really interesting is that within contemporary evangelicalism there is a movement away from intellectualism, which is evident in the shift from theologically-based hymns to more emotionally based worship choruses. In many churches, the worship “set” is actually geared toward turning off the mind and focusing on feelings. So, we have a Sunday morning format which is designed to facilitate a rationalist approach to Christianity, but a Christianity which has moved away from a rationalist approach to a more emotional (“spiritual”) approach.
What we are left with is a very big, empty structure that people are trying to fill with singing and talking, often with a lack of clear focus and purpose. This would probably explain why many (probably most) contemporary sermons fall into the categories of self-help, exhortation (scolding), practical application (more things to do), and the pastor’s perspective on life.
Which all helps explain one reason why I don’t do well in those churches.