During the years I pastored, I loved writing sermons. But I was also haunted by a feeling that that sermons undermined the goals of the church. A sermon was just a chance for one person, typically someone who was paid to read and research Scripture, to monopolize as much as 30% of the worship with an extended and often scripted monologue, lecturing members with a single voice and few visual aids (except, perhaps, a slideshow), for the purpose of bestowing their knowledge on a captive audience.
It seemed to me that sermons were a coin flip on whether or not the presence of God would come down on any given Sunday. I’ve experienced many good sermons, but I’ve also heard—and written—many sermons driven by the expectation that worship requires monologues.
Too often, the sermon is a practice that privileges the voices of those already in power and exerts influence over those with less power. It is an overused habit that does not advance the church’s goals of building relationships and creating Christ-centered lives. It’s even an expression of white supremacy culture.
Tema Okun defines white supremacy culture as a set of principles that, when accelerated and overemphasized, reinforce hierarchies that privilege whiteness, incentivize homogeny, consolidate power, and subjugate those with identities outside the white, able-bodied, masculine norm. Among the characteristics of white supremacy culture, she identifies worship of the written word; objectivity; power hoarding; only one right way; quantity over quality; and individualism.
The sermon reflects many of these characteristics. It elevates the authority of written scripture and glorifies polished (often formal or academic) language. The speaker’s view is, by nature of the amount of space the sermon takes, authoritative and objective. The length of the sermon and the tendency to place the preacher in other significant parts worship, such as the prayer, benediction, or serving communion, hoards power in the preacher’s body. The centrality and normalization of the sermon implies that it is the only way worship can occur. Our frequent use of sermons also suggests that maintaining its structure should be prioritized over the quality of the worship time together. The single presenter’s centrality and the audience’s silence makes worship an experience of individualism.
The sermon is an ancient practice that existed long before modern construction of racialized power. Preaching is central to the biblical story. Jesus and the evangelizing disciples of the early church were eloquent and sometimes long-winded preachers. These sermons were not inherently reinforcing hierarchy, and they were often accompanied by concrete actions (ie., the feeding of the 5000 or the healing of individuals) that nurtured community connectedness. However, the sermon grew up in the consolidation and expansion of the Western church, and the sermon as we practice it today is steeped with a legacy of patriarchy, racism, power, and control.
As the early church discouraged female evangelists, the sermon became an exclusively male space. Through centuries of low literacy, sermons consolidated the power of interpretation in the bodies of leadership. In the Middle Ages, the sermon exerted control, entertained, enforced norms, and motivated behavior. Celebrated church fathers such as Bernard of Clairvaux preached extensively about the crusades and actively used the pulpit to build military momentum for anti-Islamic crusades in the 12th century. Still today, Bernard’s anti-Islamic teachings are treated as a dismissible quirk of a great spiritual thinker.
I am not calling for an end to all sermons, but rather a thoughtful examination in local congregations about whether the sermon is advancing the goal of spiritual growth. The pulpit we inherited systematically disenfranchise huge swaths of the church. Too often, because our legacy of male preachers, our implicit bias leads us to call on men to preach first. Because preaching is viewed a highly skilled task, it is neither designed for nor influenced by adolescents and children. Many people who are not auditory listeners find it incredibly difficult to absorb sermons, but feel a sense of shame or fear around saying so.
Congregations can and should explore alternatives to sermons that dismantle power structures and center marginalized voices. Worship Committees can support this through annual inventories of preachers—how many women preached last year? How many people of color? How many queer preachers? How many people under 18? If worship planners are struggling to find a preacher, just remove the sermon from worship.
Churches explore different models of sermons, such as inviting people to ask questions after hearing the scripture; following the sermon with a response from a designated “listener;” creating sermons that invite or require listeners to move; or incorporating congregational volunteers in embodying key concepts. The Anabaptist practice of sharing time, where congregants reflect on the morning’s worship, is another way of dispersing the power of the sermon. There are also many alternatives to sermons, such messy church, wild church, and Quaker meeting. For congregations that continue to meet via Zoom, why not replace sermon time with break out rooms that nurture community connections?
Lastly, congregations can redistribute the power of the sermon by actively teaching the skills of preaching. Few people even have a clear grasp on what makes the genre of sermon distinct, even if they’ve preached before. Nurture a culture of biblical interpretation and empower everyone to see where Bible stories can be interwoven with our own lives.
Let’s stop assuming the sermon is somehow inherently unquestionable or essential for experiencing God.
In order to dismantle white supremacy, it’s healthy to question our use of the sermon: Does the sermon feel obligatory or rote? Does the sermon obstruct a spirit of worship? Does it consistently engage and center the voices that already have significant power? Are groups of people tuning out or disengaged during the sermon? Does the sermon control the service, creating an undue burden for those involve in worship preparation or pressure to uphold the practice for the sake of upholding the practice?
If so, change it. There are many ways to worship.