One of the most important, and particularly difficult, decisions a pioneer of fresh expressions will make is how the teaching will be communicated. The Bible certainly prioritizes the proclamation of biblical truths, but in Scripture we find multiple models of proclamation. And the monologue-sermon has probably never been more in question than it is today.
On Sunday mornings across North America large numbers of people sit quietly while experts on the Scriptures and the living of life stand for half an hour or so and orate. The topic is chosen by the speaker, and questions or comments are not normally expected or particularly welcomed. That approach has served the church well for a long time and remains to this day a significant element of the discipleship of many. Yet that model is being challenged.
With countless religious experts a mere YouTube search away, many contend that the monologue-sermon is not the best way to engage people with no church background. Not many will contend that great preaching, in and of itself, will grow great churches anymore. Pulpiteers used to be able to draw great crowds with their oratorical flair; but that was a different day. True, there are numbers of large churches driven by the personality of their pastors, but that is different from preachers attracting and impressing large crowds with their rhetorical devices. In fact, one could (and some do) argue that we should place less emphasis on the sermon today.
The era of the monologue sermon that can have an impact is coming to an abrupt and sad end. . . . We’re not signaling the end of the spoken word to communicate, but preachers will need to have a long hard look at how they speak if they expect to be heard. Except for the preaching of outstanding communicators (and they have to be very good), sermons have little or no impact. And let’s not forget that preaching as we know it is only a tool and a somewhat overused one at that, one that comes more from Christendom’s love of the philosophical art of rhetoric than it does from the Bible. Furthermore, it addicts the congregation to the communicator. . . . We invented the sermon (actually we borrowed the technique from the Greek and Roman philosophers), and then it reinvented us. We have become totally reliant on it! (Alan Hirsch, in Frost and Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come, 189)
Missiologist J. C. Hoekendijk asked the question of international missionaries in 1964: “Shall we in fact still preach?” (J. C. Hoekendijk, The Church Inside Out, 178)
His question was an attempt to help Western missionaries to non-Western lands think seriously about “traditional forms and procedures.” He warned of “being hypnotized by familiarity.”
Hugh Halter posited, The reality of adult learning is that the average adult listening to us only retains about five to ten percent of the content we’ve worked so hard to prepare, and by the time they feed the kids at McDonalds an hour after church, they’ve pretty much forgotten most of what we said. And yet, week after week, we make mammon of our time, thinking that the sermon is the center of disciple-making. But it’s not even close! Adults learn primarily through sensory experience, not cognitive downloads, and the acceptance of this fact should unhinge us from this weekly grind that bears so little fruit.
With so many voices downplaying the importance of preaching, what shall pioneers of fresh expressions do? Nothing ever will take the place of people who are well-prepared and have honed the spiritual gift of teaching. Yet those teachers will always be in search of the most contextualized and effective means of communicating.
Neither the places where many fresh expressions are meeting, nor the people most fresh expressions are engaging, tend to lend themselves to one person standing up talking while everyone sits there quietly. Interaction, dialogue, personal discovery, and flexibility are elements we should consider as we decide on the medium we will choose by which to share biblical truth. The synagogue’s blend of teaching and discussion, with the teacher seated, is a helpful model.
A Lesson from Tanzania
A missiologist spoke of evangelization among the Baraguyu of Tanzania. His observations inform also those of us interested in crossing cultures within our own country to establish new forms of church:
Such things as . . . three-point homiletical sermons . . . hinder initial response to the gospel. Meeting in the shade of a tree, using Maasai proverbs in “mini-sermons,” spending much time around the cooking fire prior to going to sleep . . . all help in the communication of the gospel. (Harley Shreck and David Barrett, Unreached Peoples: Clarifying the Task, 174–75.)
So, whether in Africa or in Anytown, USA, in the beginning, simple conversations about parables, Proverbs, or Bible stories might help. Often, in fresh expressions of church, someone will read from Scripture, make some opening comments, ask a series of discussion questions, and then wrap up with a brief application. This is a basic and nonthreatening approach to communicating biblical truths.
Your setting should determine your method of proclamation in the same way that the Tanzanian setting shaped the above method (shade of a tree, Maasai proverbs, minisermons, and conversation around the fire). Of course, we have to be careful here not to let our desire to be relevant and creative rob our fresh expressions of the rich biblical content necessary for good discipleship. (“Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ,” Romans 10:17.) We should not ignore the learning styles popularized by such pervasive realities as Google and Twitter, but neither should we sacrifice solid content for the sake of coolness.
We are all still learning about effective methodologies in this new world, so try new methods. Follow Jesus’ model of incarnation and explore various approaches to see how best you can communicate divine truth.
Celebration of the sacraments (“ordinances”)—including, at the least, baptism and the Holy Eucharist (also known as Communion, or the Lord’s Supper) is essential for church. The sacraments are both beautiful and indispensable, whether we are talking about the most traditional of churches or the newest form of church.
Yet, it is at this point that some of the most difficult conversations take place regarding fresh expressions of church. On the one extreme, one might argue, are those who restrict the celebration of the sacraments so stringently that the spirit of the sacraments get lost in the letter. On the other extreme, one might also argue, are those who handle these sacred events so loosely that the meaning of the sacraments gets lost in the quest for coolness.
The missional context of fresh expressions of church demands a reasonable, prayerful approach that treats seriously both the sacrosanct significance and the evangelistic attraction of the sacraments. Thus Damian Feeney asked, “Can fresh expressions find an appropriate and creative balance between creative innovation and the ecclesial rootedness of the Eucharist?” (Quoted in Fresh Expressions and the Kingdom of God, 178) That is the question.
Some of those concerned about surrendering the means and meanings of sacraments look with an understandably skeptical eye at fresh expressions of church. They wonder, for example, if it is appropriate for noncredentialed persons to offer primary leadership of a church or celebrate the sacraments. These are questions that deserve serious ponderings.
Of particular interest here is Holy Eucharist. Important and recurring questions like the following arise from the more liturgical wing of the church: Are unbaptized people allowed to participate in Communion? Can the bread and wine be blessed by non-ordained persons? Does the Eucharist not lose its meaning if it is handled loosely?
Church leaders from denominations in the sacramental tradition often struggle with what could be perceived as an unfitting informality, even a sacrilegious nonchalance, regarding Communion. Yet, no less than Anglican Bishop Steven Croft, first leader of the Fresh Expressions movement in the UK, suggested “a lively doctrine of exceptions.”
I content myself, though not easily, that God is well used to people doing things in the wrong order, and it underlines for me the need in sacramental fresh expressions to have a “lively doctrine of exceptions.” It is not a question of letting go of appropriate norms in the stewarding of these mysteries, or of any permanent re-ordering, but believing that these gifts are so essential to authentic Christian life, and our duty to offer them so crucial to our own identity and faithfulness, that agreed exceptions on the way are worth the risk. (Steven Croft, in Mission-Shaped Questions, 35)
I recently asked the pioneer of a fresh expression associated with a Methodist congregation about the celebration of Communion in his new faith community. He spoke of the flexibility expressed within the United Methodist Book of Worship. That resource sets forth the encounter of the resurrected Jesus with the two men on the road to Emmaus as a basic pattern for worship. This pioneer believes the worship he leads, though very unconventional by most measurements, conforms to that Emmaus model.
So we talked about Communion specifically. We agreed that the celebration of Communion is an attractive means of introducing people to Jesus, of giving people an experience of grace that is unique to Communion. My pioneering friend then noted that the United Methodist Church grants some flexibility in the celebration of Communion among those who are not yet followers of Jesus. He pointed me to the following from the United Methodist Book of Worship, page 15.
Invitation to partake of Holy Communion offers an evangelical opportunity to bring people into a fuller living relationship with the body of Christ. As means of God’s unmerited grace, Holy Baptism and Holy Communion are to be seen not as barriers but as pathways. Pastors and congregations must strive for a balance of welcome that is open and gracious and teaching that is clear and faithful to the fullness of discipleship.
Nonbaptized people who respond in faith to the invita- tion in our liturgy will be welcomed to the Table. They should receive teaching about Holy Baptism as the sacrament of entrance into the community of faith—needed only once by each individual—and Holy Communion as the sacrament of sustenance for the journey of faith and growth in holiness—needed and received frequently. “Unbaptized persons who receive communion should be counseled and nurtured toward baptism as soon as possible.” (source)
This is, I suggest, a beautiful example of not forfeiting the spirit of Communion, but employing “a lively doctrine of exceptions” for missional purposes.
Enjoy this entry? You’ll find Travis Collins’ book, From the Steeple to the Streets: Innovating Mission and Ministry Through Fresh Expressions of Church helpful. It is October’s Book of the Month, which means you buy one copy, you’ll get a second one free! Get it from our store now. In From the Steeple to the Street, Travis Collins addresses the cultural realities behind the Fresh Expressions movement, as well as the movement’s theological underpinnings. From practical experience, Collins offers insights to local church leaders on how this might unfold in and through your church.