Our church does something a little odd when it comes to sermons: we make the full text of the sermon available to those who want it. There is a demographic reason for this. Our church is a multiethnic church, with many coming with English that is less than perfect. As I preach from full notes in any case it is little extra effort to make the notes available for others who can benefit from them. And the feedback from those with limited English has been overwhelmingly positive. When someone combines the written text with the spoken word, comprehension increases dramatically if they struggle with the language. And in my mind, someone engaging more effectively with the Word of God explained is a very good thing for the gospel.
However, questions and discussions from a recent congregational meeting made it clear that the purpose and use of these notes, and of sermons more generally, are not all that clear in some people’s minds. So I am using this blog post to better explain a few things to keep in mind when it comes to sermons.
- Sermons are explanations and applications of the Word of God
This heading seems pretty straightforward, but we have all heard sermons that are only marginally connected to the Bible text they are supposed to be based upon. It is easy to come up with some kind of entertaining series of anecdotes and throw in the odd Bible verse, or maybe to have a generic kind of message on God’s love that vaguely comes from the passage. But a good sermon will be mainly about the text, not about the preacher. The preacher’s role is to explain the text, to illustrate and apply the teachings there about God and our response to God to the specific congregation there on that day.
So what? Well, it means that it would be of great benefit to have a Bible open as the sermon is preached so you can follow along. If your English is fine, don’t use the notes, but open your Bible instead. Otherwise your entire input is from whatever the preacher says and you are taking it on faith that it’s right!
A secondary issue here is that this style of preaching cannot help but at times deal with difficult topics. Our church works through Bible books for the most part and deals with whatever the next text throws up. So working through Romans 5-7 as we did last year will mean deep discussions on what it means to be “in Christ” and not “in Adam” and in-depth looks at what faith and law are and how they relate. If the preaching is good, then these concepts will be clearly explained and illustrated and applied, but they should not be avoided because they are difficult. All of God’s word is useful for us. And sometimes we will need to apply some intellectual effort to get it clear.
- Teaching English is a secondary aim of a sermon, not a primary one
A few people have commented that the sermon notes might be too advanced for many people whose English is poor. And I fully agree. It is a difficult thing to move to a new country and learn the language, especially English with its huge vocabulary and inconsistent grammatical rules. But the notes are a big help compared to just listening.
It comes down to what and who a sermon is for. If we use 1 Corinthians 14 as a template here, we see that Paul anticipates the Christian gathering to be primarily Christians. Sermons are aimed first at believers (and their children), that they might better understand God and his work and respond well to it. But it is expected that outsiders who do not yet believe will be present and we need to keep in mind how they will hear what is said (v23-25).
If people come to a church service with the aim of learning English, and they understand enough to hear the gospel, that is wonderful. If they cannot understand enough, we have an extensive English ministry for them to plug into to improve their English.
Sermons need to be simple in terms of language, and clear in terms of delivery, but that doesn’t mean we make them simplistic. As mentioned before, we need to engage with whatever the text teaches. Using large words and unnecessary complications is just bad practice for anyone, so as much as possible a good sermon will be jargon-free. But that doesn’t mean it will always be easy to understand.
- The role of the listener is to engage with, meditate on, and apply God’s word
All who listen to a sermon should be engaged with it. We all come wanting to learn from what the Bible passage has to say. So we should do all we can to make sure we are truly listening and engaged, and that we meditate and apply it afterwards as much as we can.
Preaching is a form of human to human interaction, and eye contact and connection matter. So reading along with the notes is less than ideal and should be avoided if your English is fine; you can always read them later if you missed anything. But think through how you best can be engaged and concentrate. For me, taking notes helps a lot as I learn as I write. Some jot down a few points to follow up at the end, and some spend time praying as it finishes. We believe God’s word is living and active so we want to be open to it and making every effort to meditate on it (like in Psalm 1).
If the sermon notes help those with limited English to understand and engage with God’s word, that is worth it. But the notes might actually hinder those with good English from hearing well as they are reading and not engaging with the preacher and taking note of what they personally need to work on.
Being present in a sermon doesn’t mean that you hear God’s word well. Let’s all work hard as we either preach or listen, that we might hear God’s word and respond to God well.