Sunday, March 1, 2009

Pagan Christianity - Chapter 4


A cold splash of reality hit me late one Sunday morning about 12 years ago as I stood at the back doors of the sanctuary performing my obligatory pastoral handshake/hug. The dependant - er uh rather "parishioners" were leaving the premises to go out into the world and put principles into practice. One of the faithful (an elderly man in his mid-70's) shook my hand, looked me in the face and said: "Nice sermon pastor." Normally I would be flattered and humbly tip my head with a gentle "Thank you." But I couldn't do that. Why? Because that was the week I forwent my habitual duty (week after week after week after week....) of pontificating the week-long research accomplished in the confinement of my "study" well away from the rigor of a broken world - you know - the place where Jesus was on a daily basis when he "made his dwelling among us?" We had a guest speaker that morning and he was in the restroom at the time when the affirmation of what I didn't do was rendered.

At the time, I thought that this was a careless gaffe on the part of the man who merely uttered a convenient platitude. But in retrospect it serves as an emblematic indicator to me that there is something wrong in how the church operates in form.

The insight provided in this chapter is of the nature that helps me realize that I am not insane in pondering and asking the questions I do - and arriving at the conclusions I have observed.

The sermon is the bedrock of the Protestant liturgy. For five hundred years, it has functioned like clock-work. Every Sunday morning, the pastor steps up to his pulpit and delivers an inspirational oration to a passive, pew-warming audience.

So central is the sermon that it is the very reason many Christians go to church. In fact, the entire service is often judged by the quality of the sermon. Ask a person how church was last Sunday and you will most likely get a description of the message.

Every week since 1985 (or every Memorial Day weekend, Labor Day weekend, Sunday after Easter, or Sunday after Christmas in my last context), I would wake up Sunday morning with this ball and chain fettered around my ankle. Its presence was brought on by the pressure to bring 20-35 minutes of exegetic excellence and homiletic brilliance to those who were willing to sacrifice a morsel of their weekend. So it better be good. I would often ask my wife afterward (since she was horrible liar), "How was the message?" More than once, her answer would be "Okay, I guess. My mind was wandering." So why did I sit in the confines of about 120 square feet all week leafing through published works and parsing Hebrew and Greek so that she could tell me that it was "OK?"

Chapter 4 provides the historic backdrop.

...The stunning reality is that today's sermon has no root in Scripture. Rather it was borrowed from pagan culture, nursed and adopted into the Christian faith. That's a startling statement, is it not? But there is more.

...there is a world of difference between the Spirit-inspired preaching and teaching described in the Bible and the contemporary sermon. This difference is virtually always overlooked because we have been unwittingly conditioned to read our modern day practices back into the Scripture.

...Yet for the last five centuries, most Christians have never questioned its origin or its effectiveness. Though revered for five centuries, the conventional sermon has
negatively impacted the church in a number of ways.

First, the sermon makes the preacher the virtuoso performer of the regular church gathering. As a result, congregational participation is hampered at best and precluded at worst. The sermon turns the church into a preaching station. The congregation degenerates into a group of muted spectators who watch a performance. There is no room for interrupting or questioning the preached while he is delivering his discourse. The sermon freezes and imprisons the functioning of the body of
Christ. It fosters a docile priesthood by allowing pulpiteers to dominate the
church gathering week after week.

Second, the sermon often stalemates spiritual growth. Because it is a one-way affair, it encourages passivity.

Third, the sermon preserves the unbiblical clergy mentality. It creates as excessive and pathological dependence on the clergy.

Fourth, rather than equipping the saints, the sermon de-skills them. It matters not how loudly ministers drone on about "equipping the saints for the work of ministry," the truth is that the contemporary sermon preached every week has little power to equip God's people for spiritual service and functioning.

Thus the typical sermon is a swimming lesson on dry land!

The authors don't condemn the need for spiritual leadership within a community of Followers, but rather chastise the dependence on one person (or a few people) to shepherd and teach. This robs the body of its full capability to function by every member exercising the gift(s) which they have been given by the Spirit.

Therefore, the church needs few purpiteers and more spiritual facilitators...the Christian family needs a restoration of the first-century practice of mutual exhortation and mutual ministry.

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