Saturday, February 19, 2011


The following is excerpted from Chapter 4 of Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices. Bold emphasis is mine.

"Christianity did not destroy paganism; it adopted it."

"And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man's wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God."

WE NOW COME to one of the most sacrosanct church practices of all: the sermon. Remove the sermon and the Protestant order of worship becomes in large part a songfest. Remove the sermon and attendance at the Sunday morning service is doomed to drop.

The sermon is the bedrock of the Protestant liturgy. For five hundred years, it has functioned like clock-work. Every Sunday morning, the pastor steps up to his pulpit and delivers an inspirational oration to a passive, pew-warming audience.' So central is the sermon that it is the very reason many Christians go to church. In fact, the entire service is often judged by the quality of the sermon. Ask a person how church was last Sunday and you will most likely get a description of the message. In short, the contemporary Christian mindset often equates the sermon with Sunday morning worship.' But it does not end there.

Remove the sermon and you have eliminated the most important source of spiritual nourishment for countless numbers of believers (so it is thought). Yet the stunning reality is that today's sermon has no root in Scripture. Rather, it was borrowed from pagan culture, nursed and adopted into the Christian faith. That's a startling statement, is it not? But there is more.

The sermon actually detracts from the very purpose for which God designed the church gathering. And it has very little to do with genuine spiritual growth. Don't faint dead away . . . we will prove these words in the following pages.

Doubtlessly, someone reading the previous few paragraphs will retort: "People preached all throughout the Bible. Of course the sermon is scriptural!"

Granted, the Scriptures do record men and women preaching. However, there is a world of difference between the Spirit-inspired preaching and teaching described in the Bible and the contemporary sermon. This difference is virtually always overlooked because we have been unwittingly conditioned to read our modern-day practices back into the Scripture. So we mistakenly embrace today's pulpiteerism as being biblical. Let's unfold that a bit. The present-day Christian sermon has the following features:

> It is a regular occurrence—delivered faithfully from the pulpit at least once a week.
> It is delivered by the same person—most typically the pastor or an ordained guest speaker.
> It is delivered to a passive audience—essentially it is a monologue.
> It is a cultivated form of speech—possessing a specific structure.
> It typically contains an introduction, three to five points, and a conclusion.

Contrast this with the kind of preaching mentioned in the Bible. In the Old Testament, men of God preached and taught. But their speaking did not map to the contemporary sermon. Here are the features of Old Testament preaching and teaching:

> Active participation and interruptions by the audience were common.
> Prophets and priests spoke extemporaneously and out of a present burden, rather than from a set script.
> There is no indication that Old Testament prophets or priests gave regular speeches to God's people. Instead, the nature of Old Testament preaching was sporadic, fluid, and open for audience participation. Preaching in the ancient synagogue followed a similar pattern.

Come now to the New Testament. The Lord Jesus did not preach a regular sermon to the same audience. His preaching and teaching took many different forms. And He delivered His messages to many different audiences. (Of course, He concentrated most of His teaching on His disciples. Yet the messages He brought to them were consistently spontaneous and informal.)
Following the same pattern, the apostolic preaching recorded in Acts possessed the following features:

> It was sporadic.
> It was delivered on special occasions in order to deal with specific problems.
> It was extemporaneous and without rhetorical structure.
> It was most often dialogical (meaning it included feedback and interruptions from the audience) rather than monological (a one-way discourse).

In like manner, the New Testament letters show that the ministry of God's Word came from the entire church in their regular gatherings." From Romans 12:6-8, 15:14, 1 Corinthians 14:26, and Colossians 3:16, we see that it included teaching, exhortation, prophecy, singing, and admonishment. This "every-member" functioning was also conversational (1 Corinthians 14:29) and marked by interruptions (1 Corinthians 14:30).

In short, the contemporary sermon delivered for Christian consumption is foreign to both Old and New Testaments. There is nothing in Scripture to indicate its existence in the early Christian gatherings.

(Get the book for the in-depth historical detail of where the sermon came from. Listed next is the summary offered at the end of the book).
The Contemporary Sermon—Borrowed from the Greek sophists, who were masters at oratory and rhetoric. John Chrysostom and Augustine popularized the Greco-Roman homily (sermon) and made it a central part of the Christian faith.
The One-Hour Sermon, Sermon Crib Notes, and the Four-Part Sermon Outline—Seventeenth-century Puritans.

Though revered for five centuries, the conventional sermon has negatively impacted the church in a number of ways.

First, the sermon makes the preacher the virtuoso performer of the regular church gathering. As a result, congregational participation is hampered at best and precluded at worst. The sermon turns the church into a preaching station. The congregation degenerates into a group of muted spectators who watch a performance. There is no room for interrupting or questioning the preacher while he is delivering his discourse. The sermon freezes and imprisons the functioning of the body of Christ. It fosters a docile priesthood by allowing pulpiteers to dominate the church gathering week after week.

Second, the sermon often stalemates spiritual growth. Because it is a one-way affair, it encourages passivity. The sermon prevents the church from functioning as intended. It suffocates mutual ministry.It smothers open participation. This causes the spiritual growth of God's people to take a nosedive.

As Christians, we must function if we are to mature (see Mark 4:24-25 and Hebrews 10:24-25). We do not grow by passive listening week after week. In fact, one of the goals of New Testament—styled preaching and teaching is to get each of us to function (Ephesians4:11-16) It is to encourage us to open our mouths in the church meeting (1 Corinthians 12-14). The conventional sermon hinders this very process.

Third, the sermon preserves the unbiblical clergy mentality. It creates an excessive and pathological dependence on the clergy. The sermon makes the preacher the religious specialist—the only one having anything worthy to say. Everyone else is treated as a second-class Christian—a silent pew warmer. (While this is not usually voiced, it is the unspoken reality)

How can the pastor learn from the other members of the body of Christ when they are muted? How can the church learn from the pastor when its members cannot ask him questions during his oration? How can the brothers and sisters learn from one another if they are prevented from speaking in the meetings?

The sermon makes "church" both distant and impersonal." It deprives the pastor of receiving spiritual sustenance from the church. And it deprives the church of receiving spiritual nourishment from one another. For these reasons, the sermon is one of the biggest road-blocks to a functioning priesthood!

Fourth, rather than equipping the saints, the sermon de-skills them. It matters not how loudly ministers drone on about "equipping the saints for the work of the ministry," the truth is that the contemporary sermon preached every week has little power to equip God's people for spiritual service and functioning." Unfortunately, how-ever, many of God's people are just as addicted to hearing sermons as many preachers are addicted to preaching them. By contrast, New Testament–styled preaching and teaching equips the church so that it can function without the presence of a clergyman.

For instance, I (Frank) recently attended a conference where a contemporary church planter spent an entire weekend with a network of house churches. Each day, the church planter submerged the churches in a revelation of Jesus Christ. But he also gave them very practical instruction on how to experience what he preached. He then left them on their own, and he probably will not return for months. The churches, having been equipped that weekend, have been having their own meetings where every member has contributed something of Christ in the gathering through exhortations, encouragements, teachings, testimonies, writing new songs, poems, etc. This is essentially New Testament apostolic ministry.

Fifth, today's sermon is often impractical. Countless preachers speak as experts on that which they have never experienced. Whether it be abstract/theoretical, devotional/inspirational, demanding/compelling, or entertaining/amusing, the sermon fails to put the hearers into a direct, practical experience of what has been preached. Thus the typical sermon is a swimming lesson on dry land! It lacks any practical value. Much is preached, but little ever lands. Most of it is aimed at the frontal lobe. Contemporary pulpiteerism generally fails to get beyond disseminating information and on to equipping believers to experience and use that which they have heard.

In this regard, the sermon mirrors its true father—Greco-Roman rhetoric. Greco-Roman rhetoric was bathed in abstraction. It involved forms designed to entertain and display genius rather than instruct or develop talents in others. The contemporary polished sermon can warm the heart, inspire the will, and stimulate the mind. But it rarely if ever shows the team how to leave the huddle. In all of these ways, the contemporary sermon fails to meet its billing at promoting the kind of spiritual growth it promises. In the end, it actually intensifies the impoverishment of the church. The sermon acts like a momentary stimulant. Its effects are often short-lived.

Let's be honest. There are scores of Christians who have been sermonized for decades, and they are still babes in Christ. We Christians are not transformed simply by hearing sermons week after week. We are transformed by regular encounters with the Lord Jesus Christ. Those who minister, therefore, are called to preach Christ and not information about Him. They are also called to make their ministry intensely practical. They are called not only to reveal Christ by the spoken word, but to show their hearers how to experience, know, follow, and serve Him. The contemporary sermon too often lacks these all-important elements.

If a preacher cannot bring his hearers into a living spiritual experience of that which he is ministering, the results of his message will be short-lived. Therefore, the church needs fewer pulpiteers any more spiritual facilitators. It is in dire need of those who can proclaim Christ and know how to deploy God's people to experience Him who has been preached. And on top of that, Christians need instruction on how to share this living Christ with the rest of the church for their mutual edification.

Consequently, the Christian family needs a restoration of the first-century practice of mutual exhortation and mutual ministry. "For the New Testament hinges spiritual transformation upon these two things." Granted, the gift of teaching is present in the church. But teaching is to come from all the believers (1 Corinthians 14:26,31) as well as from those who are specially gifted to teach (Ephesians 4:11, James 3:1). We move far outside of biblical bounds when we allow teaching to take the form of a conventional sermon and relegate it to a class of professional orators.

Is preaching and teaching the Word of God scriptural? Yes, absolutely. But the contemporary pulpit sermon is not the equivalent of the preaching and teaching that is found in the Scriptures. It cannot be found in the Judaism of the Old Testament, the ministry of Jesus, or the life of the primitive church. -What is more, Paul told his Greek converts that he refused to be influenced by the communication patterns of his pagan contemporaries (1 Corinthians 1:17,22; 2:1-5).

But what about 1 Corinthians 9:22-23 (NLT), where Paul says, "I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some"? We would argue that this would not include making a weekly sermon the focus of all worship gatherings, which would have stifled the believers' transformation and mutual edification.

The sermon was conceived in the womb of Greek rhetoric. It was born into the Christian community when pagans-turned-Christians began to bring their oratorical styles of speaking into the church. By the third century, it became common for Christian leaders to deliver a sermon. By the fourth century it became the norm.

Christianity has absorbed its surrounding culture. When your pastor mounts his pulpit wearing his clerical robes to deliver his sacred sermon, he is unknowingly playing out the role of the ancient Greek orator.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that the contemporary sermon does not have a shred of biblical merit to support its existence, it continues to be uncritically admired in the eyes of most present-day Christians. It has become so entrenched in the Christian mind that most Bible-believing pastors and laymen fail to see that they are affirming and perpetuating an unscriptural practice out of sheer tradition. The sermon has become permanently embedded in a complex organizational structure that is far removed from first-century church life.

In view of all that we have discovered about the contemporary sermon, consider these questions:

How can a man preach a sermon on being faithful to the Word of God while he is preaching a sermon? And how can a Christian passively sit in a pew and affirm the priesthood of all believers when he is passively sitting in a pew? To put a finer point on it, how can you claim to uphold the Protestant doctrine of sola scripture ("by the Scripture only") and still support the pulpit sermon?

As one author so eloquently put it, "The sermon is, in practice, beyond criticism. It has become an end in itself, sacred—the product of a distorted reverence for 'the tradition of the elders' . . . it seems strangely inconsistent that those who are most disposed to claim that the Bible is the Word of God, the 'supreme guide in all matters of faith and practice' are amongst the first to reject biblical methods in favor of the 'broken cisterns' of their fathers ( Jeremiah 2:13).

In light of what you have read in this chapter, is there really any room in the church's corral for sacred cows like the sermon?

You take issue with making the proclamation of the Word the center of the church meeting. However, Paul seems to emphasize preaching when instructing Timothy. In 2 Timothy 4:2, he tells him: "Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction" (NIV).
Timothy was an apostolic worker. His role was to equip God's people to function and to know the Lord. It was also to win lost souls with a view to building the church. (In 2 Timothy 4:5, Paul tells Timothy to "do the work of an evangelist.")
Therefore, preaching the Word of God is part of the apostolic call. Timothy certainly did this, just as Paul did when he preached in the marketplace in Athens and in the hall of Tyrannus in Ephesus. Those were apostolic meetings designed for equipping the church and for building the community by converting people to Christ.
By contrast, the normative church meeting is when every member of the church comes together to share his or her portion of Christ (1 Corinthians 14:26). All are free to teach, preach, testify, prophesy, pray, and lead a song.

When you describe the work of a church planter, you say he "submerged the churches in a revelation of Jesus Christ." What exactly does that mean, and how do you think this experience affects how a church body assembles together?
The first-century church planters had a deep and profound revelation (or insight) of Jesus Christ. They knew Him, and they knew Him well. He was their life, their breath, and their reason for living. They, in turn, imparted that same revelation to the churches they planted. John 1:1-3 is a good example of this dynamic.
Paul of Tarsus preached a message of Christ that was so profound that it caused immoral, blood-drinking pagans to become full-fledged Christians in love with Jesus Christ in just a few short months. (These new believers made up the churches of Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, Derbe, Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea [Acts13-17].) Paul shared the depths of Christ with them in such a way that they knew that they were holy in His eyes and that they could know Him internally, for Christ indwelt them. This profound, personal understanding of the indwelling Christ affected how they gathered together and what they did in those gatherings.
Furthermore, Paul typically spent several months with these new converts and then left them on their own for long periods of time, sometimes years. And when he returned, they were still gathering together, still loving one another, and still following their Lord.
What kind of gospel did he preach to cause this kind of remarkable effect? He called it "the unsearchable riches of Christ" (Ephesians 3:8, NIV). To put it another way, he submerged them in a revelation of Jesus Christ.

  • Whether one is preaching (kerygma) to unbelievers or teaching (didache) believers, the message to both believer and unbeliever alike is Jesus Christ.
  • Speaking of the early church, Michael Green writes, "They preached a person. Their message was frankly Christocentric. Indeed, the gospel is referred to simply as Jesus or Christ: 'He preached Jesus to him ... Jesus the man, Jesus crucified, Jesus risen, Jesus exalted to the place of power in the universe ... Jesus who meantime was present among His people in the Spirit.... The risen Christ was unambiguously central in their message."
  • While many pastors talk about "equipping the saints" and "liberating the laity," promises to free the flaccid laity and equip the church for ministry virtually always prove to be empty. So long as the pastor is still dominating the church service by his sermonics, God's people are not free to function in the gathering. Therefore, "equipping the saints" is typically empty rhetoric.
  • The sermon sells itself as the major facilitator of Christian growth. But this idea is both misleading and misdirected.
  • The Greek word often used to described first-century preaching and teaching is dialegomai (Acts 17:2, 17; 18:4, 19; 19:8-9; 20:7, 9; 24:25). This word means a two-way form of communication. Our English word dialogue is derived from it. In short, apostolic ministry was more dialoguethan it was monological sermonics.
  • The Old Testament prophets spoke in response to specific events (Deuteronomy 1:1, 5:1, 271, 9; Joshua 211-24:15; Isaiah; Jeremiah; Ezekiel;Daniel; Amos; Haggai; Zechariah; etc.). The only difference in synagogue preaching is that a message delivered on a biblical text was a regular occurrence. Even so, most synagogues allowed for any member to preach to the people who wished to do so. This, of course, is in direct contradiction to the modern sermon where only religious "specialists" are allowed to address the congregation.
  • Augustine was the first to title Matthew 5-7 in his book The Lord's Sermon on the Mount (written between 392 and 396). But the passage was not generally referred to as the Sermon on the Mount until the sixteenth century. Despite its name, the Sermon on the Mount is quite different from the modern sermon in both style and rhetoric.
  • Nothing is more characteristic of Protestantism than the importance it attaches to preaching.
  • In France, the Protestant church service is called aller a sermon ("go to a sermon").
  • The sermon originated from Greco-Roman paganism rather than from Jesus or the apostles. It is for the reader to decide whether or not the Greco-Roman sermon is wrong or right—an improved development to apostolic preaching or a departure from it.

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