People Don’t Just Change: The Purpose of Sermons

One of things that I have grown to realize about people, is that they don’t change. One of the things that I have grown to realize about myself is that I don’t change either. Another thing I have grown to realize about myself is that I want other people to change.

There is a plethora of reasons as to why we don’t change. It ranges from apathy to ignorance to arrogance to rebellion. We don’t like it. We don’t create spaces in our lives so change happens. We strive passionately for the mundane and familiar as if our sanity rests in them.

While preparing my message on Saul on the Road to Damascus this weekend I began to see the story in an entirely new way. Saul does nothing. In fact, he was doing the opposite of good. Saul didn’t change. He saw Jesus and then he didn’t really have a choice to start living differently.

The problem is, with stories like this, is that they are so opposite to how we actually see the world. We think that a good sermon (and trust me I give great sermons) will change people. We think that when people recognize the¬†destructive¬†ways of their actions they will change. We think that we can manipulate people into changing. We think that a persuasive argument will change people. We think that when someone has a child it will change them. We think that we can just decide to change when we want. It’s just not true. This rarely happens.

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I’ve been going to the local Anglican church on Sunday mornings before theStory service. They do an ancient liturgy that has lots of call and response, no songs, a short sermon and then ends in Eucharist. One Sunday this older couple was late, as they forgot about the time change. When they got there the priest reassured them that there was still time for them to partake in the Eucharist. He then stopped the liturgy and then distributed the sacrament to them. Then we continued on with the last part of the liturgy.

In any of my past churches, the minister would have been upset that the couple missed his sermon.

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People don’t change. I do think however that people can be formed. We can be formed through disciplines, rituals, repetition and traditions over time. This is part of the reason I like what the Anglicans do on a Sunday morning. It’s almost as if they have this recognition and understanding that they aren’t going to change because of a convincing sermon. Rather, they realize that they are formed through these rituals and through the body and blood of Christ by doing it over and over again week after week, year after year.

This is why I’m becoming less and less inclined to try to write convincing sermons in order to cast vision or spark change within our community. Sermons don’t change people. It just doesn’t work. I feel like sermons rather just create a guise of change. Just talking about change somehow makes people feel like they have changed.

The sermon as part of a larger liturgy makes sense. The sermon as the central role for forming and shaping a community needs to stop. So maybe we should stop putting all our eggs into the sermon basket? Imagine if we spent half the time writing liturgies as we did writing sermons? I think it would be annoying at first, and probably wouldn’t notice much different. I think however, in the long run, we would start to see communities reordering their lives to better participate in the Mission of God.

4 Comments

  • Agreed. We’ve pretty much abandoned sermons in favour of a discussion, meditation or prayer around a passage of scripture.

    And as much as I love this post, I’m beginning to wonder if our purpose of helping people change is missing the mark. I’m starting to wonder if we might be better served by creating a community in which people can encounter the Spirit of God and/or interpret what God is doing in their life (from which change follows). But I haven’t got that entirely figured out yet.

  • I’m agree with Rick.
    I recently came across a study that pointed to the many examples of interactive teaching in the new testament. Here is a short post I wrote. Feel free to interact with it. :)
    http://jonjourney.blogspot.ca/2012/04/interactive-teaching-in-new-testament.html

  • Right. The public worship gathering is for the proclamation of the Word. This happens in the sermon as well as at the table. The sermon proclaims and witnesses to the Word. The Eucharist witnesses to and proclaims the Word.

    Protestants generally focus on the sermon to the detriment of the Eucharist. Catholics generally focus on the Eucharist to the detriment of the sermon. Anglicanism is the best of both ;)

  • i am not sure i agree with you entirely. i believe biblical preaching is still key: Titus 4:13 is clear. ” Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching.” of course Titus highlights three aspects: reading, preaching and teaching.
    i still believe a sermon is critical in worship. The person who delivers it must be prayed up, prepared and dependent on the Holy Spirit who is really the one who causes hearts to change.

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