Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Looking for the Essentials

When I was a pastor, going to the church office on mid-week mornings was always a risky thing to do. I never knew how much time I would have before someone stopped by to chat. I was my own receptionist, so a visitor was an unavoidable interruption.

One regular visitor would always inquire what I was working on. However, my answer of “working on the sermon,” would result in a response of ‘good, then nothing important.’ I was never quite sure if there was a touch of sarcasm in this response. Nonetheless, the visitor would then sit in my office and begin a lengthy conversation. As irritating as it often felt back then, I am beginning to wonder if it is somewhat prophetic.

Despite recognising the importance of lay involvement, worship services still place a lot of focus on the message. Indeed other aspects of the service usually support the theme of the sermon. The sermon is considered the main instructional component to the worship experience.

As I continue to try and understand the future we are living into, I am beginning to wonder if the sermon will have less importance in a church’s worship service. I am not suggesting that the instructional purpose of the sermon is to be rejected, but rather when, where, and how that happens may need to change.

In a recent meeting of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC), each denominational leader was to bring along a young adult. This made for some rich table conversations. A survey released earlier this summer by EFC revealed that young adults do not place a high value on sermons when choosing which church to attend.

One of the researchers described visiting a congregation that is attracting young adults. The worship was similar to most other contemporary services, and the sermon didn’t stand out either. When asked what made this congregation so attractive, the young adults responded by saying, “the authenticity.” The leaders of the congregation did not hide their personal struggles or their short-comings. This honesty was not only refreshing, it also positioned pursuing faithfulness as a common pursuit, rather than an exceptional endeavour of the spiritual elite. It is something that everyone struggles with, but that anyone can participate in. What a wonderful invitation to Christian discipleship.

Another congregation intentionally met with young adults who had left the fellowship of the congregation. The pastor was openly seeking to learn what they could have done differently. The pastor asked what programs would have helped keep them in the church. Finally one of the young adults responded, “I didn’t want a program. I just wanted to go out for a coffee with you.”

This is not to suggest that pastors determine whether or not young adults stay in the church. But the church in the future will probably be less programmed, and the sermon may not be a central feature of the gathered community’s worship experience. However, these are two aspects of pastoral ministry currently requiring a lot of time and energy.

As I look back at my years as a pastor, I wonder what it would have been like if I didn’t have programs to maintain and sermons to prepare. I certainly would have had a lot more time for informal and unscheduled conversations. And that would probably have been a good thing.


  1. I've quoted it SO many times it's almost become legend in my own mind... I'm pretty sure it's not a mythical statement, but a true word.

    Years ago, returning from a meeting of Mennonite Church USA Executive Board (before it was Mennonite Church USA) my mother, in a rare fit of exasperation, said the following:

    "Those MEN!. Don't they know it's not about the programs, it's about the relationships."

    It seems to me, Willard, that you have learned what my mother was trying to say. :-)

  2. We had a sermon-less Sunday a few weeks ago. In its place, we focused on the Lord's Supper as the focal point of the service and on the sharing of faith stories. It was a great service! And it has led to interesting conversations :).

    Thanks for this, Willard.