By Patrick Scriven, Director of Communications & Young People’s Ministries


I can’t remember the last time a sermon changed my mind. There, I’ve said it. I’ve drawn my line in the sand. If the point of preaching is to evoke change in my life, bring me to repentance, or to inspire me to pay whatever ‘it’ is forward, sermons aren’t cutting it for me.

But this isn’t about sermons, I like sermons for the most part. I’m blessed to experience good preaching regularly and even excellence from time to time. I’ve learned things from those messages and have experienced the gentle nudge of the Spirit through them. I know some folks that still love sermons; I think that is great.

[quote_box_right]I can’t remember the last time a sermon changed my mind. There, I’ve said it.[/quote_box_right]I’ll admit, this may be about me. I’m not the normal congregant. While I’m not clergy, I work for the church and eat, sleep and breathe God stuff. And I get bored easily.

But I suspect that this isn’t really just about me.

After all, there must be some reason that I’m still, at 38, one of the younger people in most of the churches I visit.

In seminary it was common to be engaged in conversations of faith. Often these conversations amounted to the proverbial number of angels that could dance on the head of a pin but on occasion they would dig much deeper than that. Those discussions were challenging, interesting, and sometimes disturbing enough to be faith shaping.

I’ve rarely encountered these types on discussions in a church building but I’ve participated in many online. And while I’m most often communing with other church professionals, I notice more young people involved in such conversations, or peering in from around the edges, than I ever do in church.

I think people are hungry for a depth that sermons rarely allow us.

Despite the provocative name of this post, I don’t think that most of our pastors should stop preaching. But I do wonder if we shouldn’t question the size of the investment so many of us make in Sunday mornings as the primary vehicle for transformation and discipleship.

[quote_box_left]I think people are hungry for a depth that sermons rarely allow us.[/quote_box_left]I know thoughts like these are behind the positive reinvestment many churches are making in small groups. I suspect it is also why some pastors and parishioners are abuzz about the experiences they have with things like pub theology.

I just wonder when we are going to get more consistently serious about an online discipleship strategy.

After all, spiritual formation is already happening online, even if the formation isn’t helpful. In 2013, Americans spent just over 5 hours per day online via a computer or mobile device. How does this compare to the time we spend in church? Grumpy cats, overt (and subliminal) advertising, partisan politics, and the latest crazily over-hyped thing Pope Francis did; each pings on our news feed and uproots whatever growth that well-researched sermon initiated.

What if we practiced ministry like we knew that? Would it make a difference if we spent half of that sermon prep time engaging our members online or wherever our people spend the rest of their week? What if we became known as faithful curators of content, the people who always have something thoughtful to offer, and champions of good and holy conversation.

Of course, some ministry leaders are already doing this. Bloggers like Rachel Held Evans are shaping the minds of the faithful on issues long before their pastors ever get a chance. And some pastors have always found the time to throw on that clerical collar before they hit the local coffee shop.

So, should everyone start a blog? No. Is everyone capable of using Facebook (efficiently) to generate good conversation with their members? Probably not. Should engagement beyond the walls of the church be yet another thing the pastor is solely responsible for? Absolutely not, that sort of thinking is part of our problem.

[quote_box_right]Should engagement beyond the walls of the church be yet another thing the pastor is solely responsible for? Absolutely not…[/quote_box_right]I can’t remember the last time I changed my mind because of a sermon but I can remember the last time I was challenged to think differently and move beyond my assumptions online; it was yesterday.

If we are all intent on cultivating deeper discipleship, we need to get creative. And to do so, we need to engage people out where they live and spend their time, wherever that may be. To transform the world, we may need to reallocate some of our time from the things we perceive to be most important (Sunday morning worship) but we’ll also need to remember that the charge to do this work extends in equal part to all believers.


Now it’s your turn.

  1. What are you doing currently to engage people where they are?
  2. Is it time to start preaching less and reaching more?
  3. What are your hope and fears regarding an online discipleship strategy?
  4. How can we empower all Christians to share in the work of redeeming secular space effectively?

What are your thoughts? Leave a comment below.


Image Credit: “The Moon With Reach” by Flickr user Gabriel Rojas Hruska. Titling added.

12 COMMENTS

  1. While Patrick’s helpful suggestions about striving for authentic, in-depth relational conversation, be it online or at the local bar, are on target, I wonder about his characterization of sermons as devoid of persuasive powers and transforming change. Indeed, as he reports a change event just yesterday through online conversation. I experienced just such a “Aha” moment by listening to a sermon (online) this past Saturday. It was a young preacher’s sermon from the preceding Sunday. Often his sermons, which are all posted as audio recordings, prove to convince and motivate constructive change. He is roughly Patrick’s age, but unlike so many young preachers whose sermons I’ve heard, he isn’t afraid of biblical preaching. My suspicion is that seminary graduates, after having been inundated with biblical-critical methodology, don’t know how to struggle with appropriating the scriptures in today’s context, and so they resort to devaluing the role of sermons. To prove my point, here is a link to the sermon I heard. The preacher is Rev. Josh Patty, Pastor of East Gate Christian (Disciple of Christ) Church in Independence, MO. The link address is http://preacherforhire.blogspot.com/ and the title of the sermon is: “In Times of Punishment, a Vision of Paradise.” I recommend your hearing it as an example of preaching that reaches out in a transformative, constructive way–as preaching that is GOSPEL!

    • Jim, thanks for reading. I do think the medium of the sermon can still work for some. As a counter, I know of some pretty powerful progressive preachers as well.

      As I said, perhaps this is just a personal preference. But I suspect, given the vast and varied types of personalities and learning styles, that there are more people out there who don’t resonate as well as we’d like with the spoken word.

      Thanks again for reading.

  2. Boy, it is a good thing that you affirmed your preacher a wee bit. Otherwise, you could be in real trouble.

    I only know of one time when I actually changed some one’s mind through preaching. It was at Clam Gulch in a quonset hut in the 1960’s.. Bad weather day, so there were only 3 people present. My topic was “evangelism”. Before we started Eugene Smith, the only other man in attendance (he had read the bulletin) announced: “I don’t believe in evangelism.” After each of my 3 points, Eugene had something to say about my sermon. Today we would call it a “dialogue sermon”. When I was done, Gene proclaimed: “If that is what you mean by evangelism, I believe in it.” By my arithmetic, I had a 33 1/3 conversion rate that Sunday afternoon.

    That is almost in the same category with Billy Graham, without the hype. Unmatched in the rest of my ministry. But at least it happened once.

    • John, you are absolutely right on that first point. I’m likely in more danger than most. 🙂

      Great story BTW. I do think conversational preaching, even unintentional, is a positive step forward.

  3. There is a duality we need to address in all this that may require some difficult choices.

    On one hand we like to talk about vital congregations – which we evaluate with measurements like worship attendance, number of baptisms, financial contributions, etc. There is validity to all this – congregations and their public worship are the public face of Christianity and serve as an entry point to community for many people.

    But worship is not very effective venue for discipleship and spiritual formation/transformation. That requires deeper relationship, a kind of intimacy that takes a lot of time to cultivate. It is not easily systematized, and can’t be done “in bulk” in a large venue. It is also MUCH harder to evaluate with simple metrics. I’m frankly not all that sold on the idea that it can be done “on-line” either, but that may be the bias of years (I’ve been hacking away on keyboards for over 30 years, but I also remember life without them).

    My point is, these are two very different understandings of ministry. They require different skill sets, set different bars for “success”. The first is what we’ve all been trained to do – what we MUST to do to support the concept of “professional” ministry as we know it. Moving to the latter will require us to set aside much, if not most, of the structure and security of institutional church. And expecting people to be strong leaders in both – well – I suspect many are capable of being “successful” at both, but I seriously doubt anyone can sustain that kind of dual identity on an on-going basis.

    • Thanks for the great reflection.

      I think you are in expressing the tension between the things we measure and the discipling relationships (and venues) we need. The things we measure tend to demand more of our attention and that may ultimately be at a cost to our actual mission. Our successful movement into the future must also resolve the duality of lay and clergy and strengthen the shared responsibility and partnership of each to the other.

      I am also suspect of any online strategy that isn’t complemented with other forms of relationship/connection. I may also be showing my age.

      Thanks for reading!

  4. Patrick, I agree with what you are saying. As a preacher I have always struggled with the general rule of an hour of prep time for each minute spoken. Egads I can’t even focus that long. My prep time is mostly spent in conversation and in living. My Sunday sermon is more of a culmination of what I have seen and experienced (in the news, in the grocery store, in traffic) and how it relates to the experience of God in our midst. I have always deeply admired those who regularly take a day to study and prepare for sermons but with your guidance maybe i can stop the ugly jealousy that comes beside that admiration and claim my own style as having validity. Thanks!

  5. I do remember unintentional dialogue.

    Recently I was a guest speaker in a church and some one in the audience challenged what I was saying. (I did not know he was a guest, too. No one knew who he was.) I explained my point in greater detail and he announced that he disagreed totally with what I was saying. He was nice about it. The congregation loved the unintentional dialogue. And it gave me the opportunity to share the meaning of “universal salvation” at a deeper level than I intended.

    Another powerful experience occurred in Nome during the announcements. I had provided the information that members could travel 1,000 miles to Juneau to hear Daniel Berrigan, a Catholic priest opposed to the Vietnam War, doing such acts as pouring blood on draft records. A member of my congregation stood up to say that he was offended that I was sharing such information in church about a man who should be in jail. An attender (with Jewish background) stood up and told the man that he was offended by his remarks, as Daniel Berrigan was one of his heroes. I then gave the benediction. One of the saints, who loves a good argument, encouraged me to do something like that again. And that was just in the announcements.

    Right now my local church has adopted the program promoted by PNW called Connections. We call it Connextions. Small groups meet for 1 1/2 hour each week for prayer, food, study and personal sharing. I would say it is one of the most powerful experiences (spiritually) of my life. 12-15 people are in my group. I am the convenor. There are five such groups in our church at this time.

    Another strong experience was at a church in Alaska (which no longer exists) that had 5 regular families, sometimes as many as seven. After the worship service, the adults not involved in teaching children would meet and discuss the sermon. I sat in, but did not lead. Mostly I listened.

    One exception. One Sunday a man was enraged by my sermon and he went on the attack. (I do not remember the subject, but I do remember the rage.) Every other adult in the class told him that what he heard was not what I said. In other words, something I said triggered something in him that was not actually said. I could have denied this issue until I was blue/red in the face and he would not have backed down. But when 10 people told him he was not hearing correctly, he calmed down a wee bit.

    I wonder how many people go away “enraged” by what they thought they heard. Of course, many are also enraged by what the preacher actually does say.

    One of my saddest experiences was when I chose to march in Anchorage in grief over the killing of Martin Luther King. My photo was on the front page of the newspaper. An attender sent word that he was done with our church. I went to see him and he was working on his roof. He refused to come down, so I went up. He explained that he was glad that Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. I allowed as how he could go to another church with my blessing.

    The sad part is that he got elected to the state legislature and I had no influence over his views or priorities. It took longer to get Martin Luther King Day recognized in Alaska than in some places.

    • Thanks for these great reflections John. And thank you holding fast in witness even when your message was out of alignment with the community you served.

  6. Makes me wonder.

    How does one hold fast in witness when he/she are being judged by statistics? Not faithfulness, but statistics. I didn’t get any money or membership out of the racist and he took his lovely family with him.

    In Nome, the angry fellow did not take his money and run. I helped him dress the body of his seven year old son for burial. (heart issue) He could be angry with me and still be a friend. Same with the guy in the 7 family church. He could be angry and still be part of the church family. It is remarkable when that happens, but it didn’t happen during the Vietnam War. Families left or withdrew their financial support. See above: what do you do when you are being judged by statistics and not by your faithfulness to the whole gospel. The early church was opposed to war but some how the church got co-opted by Rome and there are only a few small churches with consistent witness for peace.

    Try taking the American flag out of a sanctuary and see what happens.
    It is not a wise statistical move.

    Time to go pull some weeds…with one arm. They don’t withdraw pledges, but they do keep growing.

  7. Thanks for sharing. I am glad even a pastor can admit to being a tad bored by sermons if I read this correctly. I sure am looking for something different.

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