Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Don't Spend Saturday Night Preparing for Sunday Morning

This last Saturday Challies posted this well-meaning piece (mostly a quote from Expository Learning by Ken Ramey) suggesting some ways that Christians can prepare in advance to engage with the preached word on Sunday mornings. The top suggestion: be home on Saturday night. The reason is apparently largely in suggestion #4, which I'll quote: "Get a good night's sleep so you can be sharp and energetic to worship and serve God. It's hard to listen when you're nodding off."

I've heard Piper and others suggest this sort of thing before and never really questioned it. Seems like its pretty wise advice, doesn't it? But these days I've been listening a lot to some of the missional types, who I suspect would read Challies' post with disdain. And in this case, I agree with them.

Here is the main problem: Saturday night is one of the two nights in our culture where the most non-Christians are the most likely to be spending time with others. So the advice effectively is, "Sacrifice half of our culture's primary social time so you can be ready to listen to preaching."

For many Christians, this will unfortunately not seem like much of a sacrifice because we aren't friends with non-Christians. And "many Christians" is not needlessly harsh there. I remember reading They Like Jesus But Not the Church and feeling the sting of Dan Kimball asking me to count how many non-Christians I was really friends with. Ouch. Not many.

Of course as a pastor this requires extra effort simply because I don't work with non-believers. But I'm confident that the problem isn't just with pastors- we are sadly stuck in our Christian social circles.

The strangest thing about Challies' post is how ironically Catholic the theology is. Pay attention again to the purpose for getting a good night's sleep: "...so you can be sharp and energetic to worship and serve God." Worship and serve? Really? By listening to a sermon? I know we're emphasizing Scripture and all, but it sounds a bit like going to church to get our grace, doesn't it?

Well of course, all of life is meant to be worship, including listening to a sermon. So it qualifies as worship. But this is exactly the point that the advice misses: all of life is meant to be worship, not just Sunday morning. Dare I say that what happens on Sunday morning is in fact not as worshipful as spending our lives reaching lost people?

I simply find it crazy to suggest that what our churches need is more emphasis on listening to sermons. Great preaching is more accessible than it has ever been, even if your pastor isn't a great preacher.

What we do need is more emphasis on living worshipful lives between Sundays, giving ourselves for the hell-bound lost all around us. Using Saturday night to prepare for Sunday mornings ultimately sacrifices living as the Church on Saturday night. Why? So we can make sure to be alert at church on Sunday morning. Why? So we can hear a sermon about what it means to be the Church between Sundays.

So don't be lazy or foolish on Saturday nights- it is good to be alert at church. But all of heaven rejoices at the return of a single lost person. I for one can't remember a passage about heaven rejoicing at a single well-listened to sermon.


Bill Faris said...

I've been a believer approximately 40 years, with most of that time spent in church settings that feature weekly sermons. So how many sermons have I "heard"?

I won't count Sunday p.m. sermons in what follows or the same sermon heard multiple times (multiple a.m. services). Nor will I exclude sermons I myself have preached.

If I go with one sermon a week, fifty weeks a year times 40 years that comes up to... about 2,000 sermons. That's a lot of sermons.

I'm not saying I haven't gotten benefit from some portion of many of them in terms of my spiritual growth and understanding, but - when it comes to the question of how many of those sermons have stood out to me as truly "memorable" - ummmm, not a lot.

Everyone can draw their own conclusions from that data but, in view of the many hours that go into the typical preparation a each sermon, that's a tremendous number of hours invested is sermonizing and the anticipated benefits thereof.

Is the return on that investment, especially when it comes to fulfilling our mission to reach the unreached, really worthwhile? You decide....

Andrew Faris said...


Yes and no.

On the one hand, you're right: we overestimate the impact of any given sermon on long term spiritual growth.

But there is barely any individual, one-time thing we do that creates that. We ought to measure sermons not on the basis of "I can/can't remember such and such a sermon from so many years ago", but on the basis of their impact over time. Just like we should measure one-on-one meetings, accountability groups, prayer meetings, and daily Bible reading. It just seems unfair to say, "I can't remember many individual sermons from those years, so that means they weren't effective."

Further, like you said, wouldn't it be fair to say that you in fact did grow a lot in all your years in old-timey church? Maybe it wasn't any individual sermons that did that, but that really isn't the point.

On top of that, it seems to me to be historically irresponsible to say that sermons don't make a big difference for evangelism. Most of the great revival movements have been spurred by believers praying fervently while the Word is preached regularly. The Great Awakenings, the ministry of Billy Graham, and the ministries of folks like Tim Keller and Mark Driscoll today are good evidence that God uses preaching to change hearts.

So my point isn't so much to rail on preaching- it's just to point out that we do overemphasize Sunday morning massively when we let it have so much influence as to keep us in on Saturday night. That's Sunday morning for Sunday morning's sake instead of Sunday morning for the week's sake.

Also, I should add that we can chalk up a lot of the ineffectiveness of preaching to how much bad preaching there is- and there is a lot of it. It doesn't seem fair to lump it all together and say, "Preaching doesn't work".


Bill Faris said...

I didn't say preaching doesn't work. I, as you pointed out, said it has no doubt been beneficial. What I am suggesting is that a courageous cost/benefit analysis regarding the huge emphasis on sermon preparation and delivery common to most churches might be in order. That's all.

Re: Billy Graham, et al - I totally agree that their evangelistic sermons have had tremendous impact. Nevertheless, the number of people in this category is comparatively small and evangelistic rallies are clearly limited in their ability to make disciples without the relationships that often precede and / or follow the message or messages (sermons) from the evangelist.

The naked truth is that most churches that are relying on sermons to reach people are not reaching people (which seems to me to be at least part of your point). That's just the stats, plain and simple.

Southern Baptist researcher J.D. Payne points out that 31.3% of his denomination's churches (known for being "evangelistic") experienced NO baptisms in 2003. Factor in one baptism and the number jumps to 38.5%.

My guess is, however, that these and other related statistics are probably not yet moving huge numbers of people to thoroughly re-think how they are spending their time, talent and treasure when it comes to the lost.

I'm just trying to follow up on your point that we ask more of sermons, especially when it comes to reaching people, than they can bear to deliver in most cases. And, as you and Dan Kimball point out, it is when the truth of the gospel (be it in the form of a sermon or a conversation) is spoken and demonstrated in the context of a relationship that people are reached.

Finally, my point about only being able to remember a few of the 2,000 sermons I've heard is not to attack sermonizing, per se. I'm just observing that even my own considerable efforts to make my sermons "sticky" need to be tempered by my own experiences that few sermons are memorable as such despite the best efforts of mice and men.

Jared Totten said...

I would agree with both of you, I think there is a cumulative effect on the sermons we hear, a sort of synergism where the total impact is greater the sum of the parts. As Luther said, we need the Gospel pounded into our heads continually.

And I'm certain that we would all agree that this isn't an either/or dilemma. In some sense, this question mirrors the decisions we have to make every week, all week, all our lives. Where do we find the balance between time given to the body and time given to the lost? Certainly Jesus modeled for us a life that often did both at the same time (reaching the lost while teaching the disciples). This, I think, is something the missional types are hinting at, how we live out our community faith in front of unbelievers as a convincing apologetic and evangelistic act.

But with our all too often compartmentalized American lives, I think balance is always called for. When Jesus said "Go make disciples", he didn't give us the option of one or the other. We are called to both be "Going" and "Making disciples" and if we overemphasize one at the expense of the other, we are missing the mark.

jbboren said...

Taking your logic to its conclusion, the most social time of the week for non-Christians is Sunday morning.

So are you recommending we skip worship to be missional?

Andrew Faris said...


Well, I don't think that Sunday morning is actually the most social time of the week for non-Christians. But you bring up a good point either way.

Let's say you're right and Sunday morning is the most social time of the week. Then what I would say is that you should seriously consider moving Sunday services to a different time. I am not one who thinks that the NT mandates Sunday morning as the time of week we must meet.

I'll give you an example: I was at a conference where Michael Frost, an Australian, was saying that in Australia there are surf rescue clubs that meet every Sunday morning where families bring their kids and a surf instructor teaches them how to properly be a surf lifeguard. But it's more than just training: it sounds more like a camp kind of atmosphere.

So the beaches are littered with unbelieving parents just sitting there, hanging out together while their kids are off in the water. Frost mentioned that he's heard some preachers say that it shows the godliness of the people there that they are at church instead of surf clubs, but Frost suggests that's totally backwards.

So he is with a house church, I think, and the house church doesn't meet on Sunday morning partly so that their people can spend time with all of those non-believers.

Is there anything wrong with that approach? I think not.