Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Do You Enjoy Your Church Gatherings?

One of the most frequent comments you're likely to hear following a Lord's Day service is "I enjoyed the service." Thankfully, we hear that a lot at FBC. It's good that people enjoy the service; enjoying the service is a lot better than not enjoying it. Could you imagine greeting people after the service and several folks walking by with, "I didn't enjoy that at all." "Wow. That was lousy." "Shoulda slept in and watched the game." "Woulda been better to go fishing."

What a brutal morning that would be.

But what does it mean to enjoy a gathering of the local church? Better yet, how is the enjoyment of the service different for different elements of the service?

I also meet a lot of folks who have a favorite part of the service. Some really enjoy the music and singing. Others really enjoy the sermon and preaching. A few say they either love the singing or the preaching and sorta survive the other.

I want everyone in the service to enjoy every part of the service. But yesterday I was thinking that a bit of caution might be warranted here. Precisely what is meant by "enjoy"? And can a sermon or a prayer be "enjoyed" the same way a song can be enjoyed?
It seems to me that singing and music have some distinct advantages when it comes to producing what is readily recognized as arms raised, eyes shut, tip-toe-standing enjoyment. First, we tend to sing a repertoire of songs, some of which are favorites. The repetition (though not too much) increases mastery and familiarity, and thereby helps the enjoyment. Second, the nature of music--with its harmony and melody--seem divinely created to arouse pleasure and joy. Even when we sing sad songs (the blues) there is an accompanying enjoyment. The sadness actually melts into an appreciation for that aspect of life and beauty. A third advantage of music and singing is its close relationship to entertainment in general. The goal of entertainment is to please the consumer, to excite and stir a lightness (usually) and subjective valuation. Because we love entertainment so much, and the basis of our enjoyment is largely subjective, and because singing and music in Christian services are of the same cloth, singing and music (assuming its at least average) are more easily enjoyable for most people.

What happens when our entertainment and enjoyment assumptions about music and singing become the evaluation criteria for other elements of the service (prayer and sermon)?

Neither prayers or sermons are generally thought of as forms of entertainment. Neither are so nearly as acceptably subjective as our experience of music and song. Neither prayer or sermons enjoy the advantage of repetition; each prayer and sermon are different. Rarely does a preacher preach to the same congregation the same text without feeling like the familiarity and repetition are distinct disadvantages in some ways. In short, prayers and sermons are different animals than music and song.

That's why if we evaluate our "enjoyment" of prayers and sermons using the same criteria (often assumed and not explicitly considered) we may find ourselves really loving the music and singing (which is good to love) and enduring the sermon and prayers.

Sermons and prayers require work. It's work to pray. And it's work to give attention to a sermon. And if a prayer becomes entertaining, we leave feeling like something profane has just happened. A loss of appropriate awe and decorum in prayer instinctively feels like strange fire. I remember once hearing a brother actually crack a joke in a prayer. The gasp was audible. The entire room choked in disbelief. The joke was actually funny in retrospect; but it was jarringly inappropriate in a public gathering addressing God the Father. It's not that God doesn't have a sense of humor; He does. It's that prayer is not entertainment. Something fundamentally different is happening, and so we need different criteria for describing the enjoyment of prayer.

The same is true with preaching. It's a different animal than singing and music. The person who enjoys a sermon has to listen for something different than melody and rhythm and tune and time and harmony. I think those things must be there, but not the way they are in music. There must be harmony with the text. There must be a certain rhythm to the sermon (not spending too much time on one point). And there must be white space... pauses and modulation of the voice and intensity. Those things have their place. But if they are done to accomplish an effect akin to the enjoyment derived from singing and music, the inevitable result will be turning the sermon into a kind of entertainment, a spoken word album of sorts, which actually harms the intent of preaching and the sermon. If a song leader becomes an entertainer, at least among the unsuspecting, he's considered "good" at leading. If the preacher becomes an entertainer, he's doomed.

To enjoy a sermon or prayer, it seems you really must enjoy:

1. Thinking. Songs carry thoughts (increasingly the choruses only carry one thought). And if we sing well, we sing with understanding. But songs tend to be commercial-length thinking. Sermons tend to be at least sit-com length, and perhaps even drama length. The level of thinking required in the sermon can feel like a tax if you actually don't want to think that much. And so enjoyment may be weakened by a resistance to thinking.

2. Argument. Sermons not only demand thought, they actually demand some level of argument. There is sustained reasoning, illustration, advancement of points, anticipation of objections, and so on. If you don't like thinking, you probably won't like following arguments. You probably won't like the Pauline epistles. You'd probably prefer narratives and the "stories" of the Bible. And you probably won't enjoy preaching that much as a general rule. In fact, you probably don't like the good hymns either, since they often advance an argument of some sort. But to enjoy a sermon, a person must enjoy a well-made argument and be able to follow it.

3. Reflection. Sermons and prayers often insist on a fair amount of introspection and application. Songs and music are outstanding for leaving you with good feelings. And feeling good after singing truth is good. Yet, it takes quite a bit of skill to turn music and singing into extended reflection and lasting change. That's the role of the sermon and to some extent good prayer. In prayer there is confession and repentance and dependence and resolution. In the sermon there is application and teaching and correction and encouragement and rebuke and so on. If you don't want your sins to find you out, if you don't like to be spiritually challenged, if you don't want to reflect on how you think, feel, live and so on, then chances are you don't enjoy sermons very much. To enjoy a sermon, you must be willing to reflect on the implications of what's being said for all of life.

4. Listening. All of what I've said above presumes an ability and willingness to practice disciplined listening. Most people listen differently when they sing. Again, they listen for harmony, melody, rhythm... pleasing sounds that are intuited rather than cogitated (unless you're a musician or can read music). With prayer and sermons, there must be some cogitation; and that requires skillful listening. In a day and age where "huh" is a complete thought, listening may be a rare jewel. Listening is not particularly valued in a culture where laugh tracks cue all our "spontaneous" giggles and "outbursts." But if we would enjoy and really benefit from public or private prayer and sermons, we must enjoy (or at least not mind) listening.

5. Praise. Perhaps the most unfortunate thing about how we talk about public services is we limit "praise" only to the portions of the service where we sing or hear music. We even talk about "praise music." So, for many people, in subtle but real ways, "praise" is not what you're doing when you pray or listen to a sermon or give (there's something else that has a different standard for enjoyment). For many people, sermons are not praise because we think we're not "doing anything" when we listen, think, argue, and reflect. "We're just sitting there," we tell ourselves. But I like Piper's definition of preaching as "expository exultation." The aim of preaching is to help our people exult, revel, delight in God. Nothing is more appropriately considered praise than being led by the preached word to exult in the God of all creation who redeems sinners by the loving sacrifice of His Son and seals them until the day of redemption by His indwelling Spirit. We'd both exalt preaching and discover more enjoyment of it if we understood preaching and listening to be acts of praise.


If I'm correct that these are the things that increase enjoyment of prayer and preaching, then it should be obvious why an entertainment ethos in public gatherings is so spiritually destructive. Entertainment widdles all of these things down to nothing. Entertainment comes along and says, "You shouldn't work that hard to find enjoyment in something. This should be easier. Make me feel without having to listen, think, argue or reflect." And when the voice of entertainment wins, it redefines praise as anything but listening, thinking, following arguments, reflecting and applying. The Christian interested in anything but listening, thinking, following arguments, reflecting and applying simply will not grow, will not be rooted in the faith, will not study the word, will not do hard things for God, will not suffer, will not rejoice in suffering, will not suffer with others, will not sacrifice, will not face death and rejection for the gospel, will not give radically and sacrificially, will not consider going in gospel missions, will not raise their children to go in gospel missions, and will not draw necessary lines to protect the gospel and the church and fellow Christians.

It's ironic that our desire and unexamined criteria for "enjoying" the public gathering of the church may be eroding our deeper enjoyment of it. We may be like those crabs with one big claw and one little claw. We may have a big-claw, overdeveloped sense of enjoyment as near-the-surface emotional response to things that entertain (even in the best sense of that word), while having a little-claw, underdeveloped appreciation for those spiritual disciplines that require more work to produce enjoyment and fruit (things like prayer, Bible study, fasting, giving, the sacraments, and listening to the word).

Praying we all get more enjoyment out of our Lord's Day services.

7 comments:

Brance said...

A couple questions for you.

Am I wrong in suspecting that the average American church goer does not enjoy sermons and prayer in this way?

If I'm correct...

As a pastor, who's primary form of communication and teaching is a form that the average person doesn't engage with, how can you move your people toward engagement of this sort?

How do you get people to think, reason, reflect and listen?

To restate the question, if you had a church full of people who did not engage in these ways, what practical steps would you take, as a pastor, to move them toward engagement with the sermon, and ultimately the Scriptures?

Hayden said...

brance,

I know what you mean. I am currently an associate pastor and in January will be moving to Florida to take a church as a Senior Pastor. I tell you this to give you a little background on my answer.

I came to the midwestern church that I am in thinking that if I gave people here a book to read, they would read it. If I preached, they would listen. My perception and reality were far apart.

As far as reading, what did I do? I taught them that reading was important because it caused them to think about and interact with what is being read wheras entertainment only requires you to watch. I then challenged them to read what I call, "The Article of the Week" which is an article that I have puled from the internet (I think I have even made some of our brother Thabiti's blog articles my article of the week). I started small and then we started a 'book of the month'. We bought 5-6 copies of books and put them in our information center and encouraged the people to buy one and read. I kept re-iterating that 'Leaders are readers'.

This is a constant battle, but I have seen some improvement among the people in their ability to interact with books and articles. Actually, the 'article of the week' has become a must read for many people.

What does this have to do with your original question, you may be asking? LOTS! I have found that when people grow their ability to interact with a book, they also grow their attention span. Then they are training themselves to interact with a sermon.

Michael Faberez in his excellent book "Preaching that Changes Lives" (which is a book that you must read and have in your library to reread if you do not already) suggests that you do a sermon every once in a while called "How to Get the Most Out of a Sermon". I would challenge the people not to be passive but active listeners and interact with what is being preached by taking notes and writing down questions that they could look up later.

Basically, raise the bar for the people of the church and they will slowly come to it. I am not saying preach for and hour and a half or even an hour right out of the gate. (I think some of our brothers think if you preach less than an hour you have violated some commandment) If the people are used to 30 minute sermons (which when you are a new preacher might be a good thing anyhow), work on raising it to a level that you think you can address the text. I started preaching at 30 minutes and have steadily raised it in 5 minute intervals and have preached close to 50 minutes with no one mentioning that it was too long.

My advice to you is patience. Patiently teach them the importance of worship in the expounding of the Word. A wise professor once said to us in seminary "There is a difference between patience and compromise" Be patient my friend, but never compromise the clear exposition of the text. If you have to take smaller chunks of the text and fit it into a smaller time frame. Hope that helps brother.

Hayden

Thabiti,

Thanks for a blog where we can discuss things that really matter in an intelligent manner.

wwdunc said...

Thabiti,

Speaking of "entertaining" prayers, have you seen this clip?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UN7UCwaguw4

I find this clip simultaneously entertaining and sad--it makes me sad that it's so entertaining. Does that make sense?

This is a very helpful post. Personally, I find anything I do in front of an audience in the context of worship--singing, praying or preaching--can be problematic, requiring that I search my own heart and consciously depend upon God.

FellowElder said...

Wyeth,

As the old saints used to say, "My, my, my." I often wondered if they weren't more sad or sadly amused when they said that. That's all I could think watching this prayer. Prayer as performance in the African Black Church tradition at its finest. Jesse sure seemed to enjoy himself, didn't he? Probably be definition if you're laughing and hopping around it's probably not a prayer.

Thanks for sharing, bro. Grace and peace,

T-

FellowElder said...

Brance,

I think Hayden gives good counsel. I'd only add a couple of thoughts.

1. Don't judge your people positively or negatively. Most will want to learn; some won't. Some can be blamed for laziness, but most have probably not been challenged or taught a great deal. So, be patient and be loving. Don't judge and try not to use whatever advantages we've had as a bully club. Genuinely teach.

2. Speaking of patience, know that changing the listening and reading habits of a congregation is a long-term strategy. Since being at Capitol Hill, I picked up the habit of giving away books at Wed. night Bible study and Sunday evening service. I'll also usually recommend one or two as well. That salts the congregation with good material and usually illustrates that you care enough about the people reading good stuff that you're willing to give them things good for their soul. So, try something like that and/or Hayden's suggestion of selling some books in a book store or a book cart.

3. Keep preaching. I think a taste for exposition is acquired. The sheep hear his voice and they follow Him, but they need to hear His voice. Keep opening the word and the milk and the meat will be sweet to them. The hardest thing on this front is to patiently resist the downward pressure on the sermon and not take complaints about length or content (assuming both are appropriate) personally. Sometimes the complaints are the first waking motions of a people who have been asleep.

4. Use/create some time where the teaching is more interactive than a morning sermon allows. We use Wed. night Bible study to grind through a book of scripture 3-4 verses at a time. It's an inductive study where I ask lots of questions, they comment and ask questions of their own, and we all have a good time. Actually handlinig the text creates greater appetite for the text.

5. Be excited about the word and the argument and the challenge of Scripture. Part of this is caught not taught.

6. Finally, make reading a part of the discipleship approach you take with the church. If you meet up with men in the church, base at least part of your conversation around a good book or article. discuss it, and the habits of listening, thinking, reflecting, etc. are built. I really like Hayden's suggestion of the "article of the week." Think I'll steal that. And lots of churches will print a sermon guide or weekly study based on the passage preached. The church here has done that prior to my tenure and I've done it some, and it's produced good fruit.

Just some thoughts. Mainly: Keep teaching and modeling and patiently love the people.

Grace and peace,
T-

Bible Nerd 9 said...

Such an informative post. It particularly caught my eye because i was questioning whether or not it was appropriate to ask someone if they "enjoyed chuch". It makes it seems like you are watching a football game Sunday morning instead of having corporate communion with God. The tips were really helpful as well. I definitly learned alot from this post.

Brance said...

Thanks everyone, especially Hayden and FellowElder. I appreciate the feedback and I made some notes to remind myself of a few things. We'll be having an elders meeting Sunday after church and I'm going to introduce Hayden's idea of an article of the week.

Thanks again FellowElder for hosting this great discussion!