Not Every Pastor’s a Teacher—Not Every Service Needs a Sermon

Billy_Sunday_preachesBy the time I was finished pastoring, I’d had enough. I’d spent five years writing and delivering a weekly 10–12-page theological paper in the form of a sermon—on top of my regular pastoral expectations.

There was a portion of my mind chewing on ideas all the time. I know it sounds silly to say, but a lot of that time I didn’t really feel present to more important things around me. I was always writing and re-writing in my head, and the urgency of next week’s message drowned out the importance of other things. On top of that, I was constantly strip mining my experiences for future use as sermon illustrations.

I’ll bet I’m not the only pastor who constantly woke from the same nightmare of showing up for a service completely unprepared.

The Problem with Preaching

There are definitely pastors who have worked harder, preached more, and with greater success than I did. I tip my hat to them. But the evangelical church revolves around the sermon as the central purpose for gathering, and it was during this period that I really began to question that strategy.

Here are some reasons I feel it might be time to grill the sacred cow of sermon-centered services.

1. Some gifted pastors are not gifted teachers.

In Ephesians 4:11, Paul talks about some of the gifts God has given to the church. Those giftings include pastors and teachers, and although you may have some mixture of both, it isn’t a necessity. Some incredible pastors who excel at soul care, crises management, and generally embodying Jesus to a community of believers, will never preach award-winning sermons.

One of the most important people in my life was a pastor I served with for 15 years. He wasn’t the greatest preacher. In fact, sometimes it was work to sit through his messages. But he was Jesus to me and he forever left a mark on my soul. His strength wasn’t in public preaching, but he had truly become a living expression of the Word to me.

Sadly, when you ask someone what their shepherd is like, they’ll inevitably respond by summing up their pastor’s preaching style.

2. Many churches are run by charismatic teachers who are not pastors.

Another cost of making the sermon the service’s centerpiece are the pastors who are just not gifted shepherds.  I’ve been to many churches with skilled teachers who run the church more like a manager or CEO than a pastor. In one church I went to for a while, the charismatic teacher would leave out the back door the moment the sermon was over.

Now, a smart person in this position can surround himself with gifted pastors to compensate for their areas of weakness. But do we have to call these teachers pastors? The word pastor denotes an expectation of personal interest and spiritual friendship—it’s confusing when that formative relationship is absent.

When you think of pastors that are elevated to the level of celebrity, it’s for their teaching ability not their Christlike service to their congregations.

3. Information is not the sole consideration for spiritual formation.

When our gathering is focused on preaching every week, we’re communicating that information is what is going to change hearts. It’s true that the renewing of our mind is an important part of our transformation (Rom. 12:1), but a weekly monologue is not necessarily the only or best way to make that happen.

Many evangelical churches do not make service and sacraments a regular part of their gatherings, and in place of them make a sermon the chief element of grace. As important as the Word is to our transformation, so is the temptation for knowledge to puff up (1 Cor. 8:1).

There are other important ways to get the Word into people’s lives: public readings,  group discussion and Bible studies, memorization, song, and more. It’s an enculturated and not biblical view that says that preaching is God’s chief way to minister the Word.

4.  Preaching is often more about interpretation than it is about the Word.

Looking back over 20+ years of preaching, there are definitely sermons I am ashamed of. As I have grown, I look back on some of my messages and shudder. There have been churches full of people who have sat through bullshit and opinion that, at the time, I was thoroughly convinced was God’s Word. Sometimes it was just popular christianese trends and the ideas of others that I was spouting.

Maybe I’m the only one. Maybe there isn’t another pastor out there that wouldn’t take back certain messages. It doesn’t matter, I have attended enough churches in my life to know that a lot of what passes for preaching the Word, isn’t.

I am not just talking about cultic, bad churches either—I’m talking about perfectly good churches. It’s fine and to be expected, but it’s too human for us to pretend like it’s a weekly sacrament that God demands.

There are a million pastors who would read this and say to themselves, “Not at my church. We preach the Word at my church.” But they wouldn’t all be right . . .

5. We place too high a premium on good messages

If I hear another person tell me they’re leaving their church because they’re “not getting fed,” I may lose my mind. The truth is that our exaltation of the sermon places a premium on finding the church with the best possible sermons for you.

The Spirit-imbued body of believers is the focus of our gatherings—not sermons. One thing that makes me crazy about the way we have elevated sermons is how much energy we spend after a service criticizing the message.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy preaching

I still preach about four times a year and attend a church where the sermon is still the focus of the service. I think messages can be a wonderful part of our gathering. I just don’t think pastors should be expected to excel at it, and I don’t think it needs to be the focus of every gathering.

What kinds of things could we do differently?

What if we allowed more teaching to be done by gifted, congregational teachers?
What if we focused our gatherings on other forms of body life like prayer, worship (not necessarily contemporary), responsive readings, longer readings of Scripture, art, sharing, prayer walks, service, *gasp* silence, or other expressive forms?
What if we freed pastors up to actually be more involved as incarnational representations of Jesus among us?

I have brought this up to enough friends that I know many are not going to agree with me. I’d love to talk about it in the comments.

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