The gatherings of the early church are described in Acts 2:42, saying, “The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers”. These gatherings continued the rabbinic teaching model of selecting a text and interpreting it for the community like we see Jesus doing in Luke 4:17-21. This shared experience of interpretation is one of the ways in which we worship with our minds and seek understanding with the traditions and texts that shape us.
The sermon can adopt different formats: sometimes focused on teaching a specific passage, considering a topic in the perspective of our faith, or sharing our history and purpose. Sometimes it is conversational and sometimes academic. Regardless of the type or structure, it is a focused time for us to share a message together for further reflection and discussion.
Within many Protestant churches, however, the role of preaching has developed an outsized role as the focal part of the gathered church. There are many possible reasons for this, but the result is that our gatherings (and faith) become increasingly individualized. Spiritual authority is consolidated into the hands of one leader (often on the basis of their stage presence) and manufactured for intellectual assent or entertainment. There are also times when we may be guilty of these same patterns.
Within our denomination, which has produced a number of excellent preachers and teachers, the emphasis has historically been placed on the communion table as the focal point of our liturgy, which helps to resist the tendency toward church as an individual experience or entertainment being the emphasis in teaching. We strive to have a community-driven theological conversation, which is manifested in different ways for the benefit of the group gathered.
In an era when spiritual instruction has become widely available and hyper-individualized through podcasts, mega-preacher social media accounts, TED talks, and the like, the sermon remains a unique form of communication where a member of our own community shares with us what they are hearing from the spirit of God. We benefit from the insight of someone who knows us and challenges us to go deeper in our relationship with Christ together. We benefit from a person’s inspiration, not because of their unique authority, but because of their dedicated study, spiritual life, and shared ministry among the community.
Experiment: Think about any sermons that have been particularly meaningful to you. Who were the people and communities behind those experiences that made such an impact? How can you be part of a community that continues to inspire in similar ways?