Hear Me Out: On Sitting Through Sermons

Vincent van Gogh - Church Pew with Worshippers

Donald Miller recently admitted to attending church irregularly. Church services really don’t scratch him where he itches: singing leaves him flat and he doesn’t learn much from sermons. He argues that he is not alone in this, suggesting (controversially) that most men struggle with church services.

One of the reasons why he struggles with church services, and sermons in particular, he maintains, is because he is the wrong kind of learner. He alludes to research that there are three different kinds of learners: auditory (hearing), visual (seeing), and kinaesthetic (doing). As he is a kinaesthetic learner, sermons and church services—which are designed for auditory learners—just won’t cut it. Instead of church services and sermons, Miller has discovered that he connects to God through doing—in particular, through building his company.

Donald Miller and I inhabit rather different Christian worlds and only occasionally does he drift into the periphery of my radar. However, this particular post raises some interesting issues and is worthy of reflection. While some have criticized Miller for his theology or for his claims about the three types of learners—much could be said on both fronts—I want to take a slightly different tack.

At the outset, we should acknowledge that evangelical churches often do place far too much of an emphasis upon speaking to the mind, leaving the body unaddressed and under-engaged. Whether through a deficit in, marginalization, abandonment, or intellectualization of sacramental practice, this is a very pressing issue. But for now we will leave that issue to one side.

Granting for the sake of argument that everything Miller says about the different kinds of learners is true (and there are certainly a few things that could be disputed on that front), his conclusions about the sermon don’t necessarily follow. The sermon teaches us much more than its apparent content.

Even if you have forgotten the message of every sermon you have ever heard, you have probably still learned a great deal from them, lessons that few even recognize that they are learning. And many of these unrecognized lessons are kinaesthetic in character.

When we attend a church service and hear a sermon, we may often leave with the impression that we haven’t learnt anything. Without the ‘spark’ of new information or a sense of ‘connection’ we may wonder why we are bothering in the first place. The feeling that we are wasting our time may be compounded when, in addition to feeling that we haven’t learnt anything and have no frisson of ‘connection’ to God, we find the practice of sitting through a sermon burdensome and exhausting. Some of these issues may be particularly pronounced for those with academic theological education who doubt that there is anything a regular church sermon could teach them that they don’t already know.

However, determining whether or not we are learning isn’t straightforward: the feeling that we aren’t learning isn’t always a reliable indicator. Often this sense can be nothing more than our failure to appreciate the sorts of lessons that we are learning and how they are being learnt. People who focus upon receiving new information from every sermon will often leave disappointed. This doesn’t mean that they haven’t learnt anything, though: learning isn’t merely about information.

Feelings of ‘connection’ or emotional and imaginative engagement are also limited as indicators of our learning. Likewise, boring, unstimulating, or burdensome activities are not necessarily lacking in educational value. The popular belief that all meaningful education must be entertaining and stimulating is a misguided one.

It does not make sense to conclude that we can’t learn from a practice just because we find it difficult. Quite the opposite, in fact: the difficulty of an activity is usually evidence that we need practice so that we can become better at it, something that applies to learning activities too. Just as in the case of most other activities, sitting attentively through sermons is not something that comes naturally to us and is a practice that requires frequent repetition and much conscientious and deliberate discipline to master.

Like the difficult and unpleasant practice of resisting the urge to distract ourselves while reading dense books—the primary discipline of the reader is overcoming kinaesthetic impulses and sitting still—the practice of sitting attentively through sermons expands our learning capacities. As this learning capacity doesn’t come so naturally to ‘kinaesthetic learners’, perhaps they stand in particular need of the practice, a practice that will hone their learning and thinking skills on many fronts. Our attention spans can be extended by forcing ourselves to push our limits and resist our natural urges in this area.

We will best be able to recognize some of the unappreciated lessons that sitting attentively through sermons teaches us when, rather than viewing this solely as a means of receiving informational content, we start to look at the nature of the practice itself as a habit-forming discipline.

Some of the habits that we learn from sermons relate more closely to their content. So, for instance, hearing good preaching, week after week, teaches us the habits and skills of good Bible reading, training us in how to read a text, not just the meaning of the particular text being preached upon. It teaches us that the Scriptures need to be interpreted. It teaches us our need for the spiritual gifts of others and, in particular, for those gifted in and ordained for authoritatively addressing God’s truth to our conscience.

However, there are other lessons that we learn from sitting attentively through sermons that relate more closely to the form of the activity. And these more bodily lessons shape our minds. One of the most important of these is teaching us to relate to the Word of God as something that comes to us from without and that we must submit to as an authority. Reading privately and silently with our eyes is very different from public hearing with our ears. Our sense of the exteriority and personal authority of a word is typically more pronounced when we encounter it through our ears. It is also easier to control our seeing than our hearing. When we attend a church service, it teaches us the discipline of putting ourselves at the disposal of God’s Word: we can’t easily get up and leave, but have to hear out its proclamation, no matter how much we might want to be elsewhere. All of this develops a habitual ‘posture’ of mind in relation to God’s Word.

The spoken word also has effect of creating an ‘audience’, binding a group of people together in a way that individuals reading alongside each other cannot. This trains us in relating to the Word of God along with others as a community and not as something addressed to us alone. We are called to faithfulness together and hearing together should foster in us a sense of our responsibility to and dependence upon each other. It requires of us to come under the authority of Scripture publicly, before brothers and sisters to whom we are accountable.

This is also a form of ministry to others. Every sermon we attend we are being present to and with every other person attending, declaring that we stand alongside them under the teaching of God’s Word, encouraging and reinforcing their Christian habits in this area by our example.

What Mark Searle says about liturgy more generally can be applied to the act of attending to a sermon more particularly (similar observations can also be found in James K.A. Smith’s recent work):

Discipline might be defined as the kind of self-control which frees one from distraction and preserves one from dissipation. Ritual behaviour is a prime example of such discipline. By putting us through the same paces over and over again, ritual rehearses us in certain kinds of interaction over and over again, until the ego finally gives up its phrenetic desire to be in charge and lets the Spirit take over. The repetitiousness of the liturgy is something many would like to avoid; but this would be a profound mistake. It is not entertainment, or exposure to new ideas. It is rather a rehearsal of attitudes, a repeated befriending of images and symbols, so that they penetrate more and more deeply into our inner self and make us, or remake us, in their own image.

The discipline that Searle discusses is often bound up in physical habits, habits that we are culturally inclined to devalue, but which shape us in important ways. Our presumption that only ‘didactic messages’ are worth receiving, and that anything that does not immediately cause us to think can’t be forming us in important way, causes us to miss out on much that God has to teach us. Searle speaks of a ‘discipline of listening, looking, and gesturing to be learnt: ways of standing, touching, receiving, holding, embracing, eating and drinking which recognize these activities as significant and which enable us to perform them in such a way that we are open to the meaning … which they mediate.’ This ‘mediated meaning’ isn’t a new set of ideas, but a form of life that emerges as we are shaped by such practices.

While preaching is often placed in contrast to the rituals and actions of the liturgy, it is a liturgical act too, and the things that the various participants in the liturgical event of preaching do are of great significance and formative power. Even the little ‘physical’ habits involved in hearing a sermon shape us. Leaving our homes to go to a different, communal context to hear God’s Word. Remaining silent and attentive. Learning how to be physically still. Learning how to use our ears in an age of the image. Sitting alongside others. Facing someone standing over against us. Etc.

Some of the lessons that we are taught through these practices could be particularly important for ‘kinaesthetic learners’. When sitting through a sermon, our urge to be ‘doing’ and active—supposedly more pronounced for kinaesthetic learners—must be resisted and we must let another act towards us. We must learn how to rest from our ‘doing’ in a hearing manner, allowing God’s Word to enter into and further shape our lives and actions.

Also, as Harvey Cox once observed, ‘Sermons remain one of the last forms of public discourse where it is culturally forbidden to talk back.’ Subjecting ourselves to such a form of discourse can shape us in healthy ways.

All of this should make clear that—even if all of the stuff about kinaesthetic, visual, and auditory learning were completely accurate (it isn’t)—the physical act of attending a sermon has something to teach everyone. Whether or not you think that you are learning anything, it is shaping you in significant ways.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Controversies, Sacramental Theology, The Blogosphere, The Emergent Church, The Sacraments, Theological, Theology, Worship. Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to Hear Me Out: On Sitting Through Sermons

  1. Pingback: The Skeptical Theist

  2. jdlinton says:

    This is particularly important for our children to teach them liturgies of life: http://blackstoneinitiative.com/2013/07/29/changing-the-world-one-sunday-at-a-time/.

    • Thanks for the comment and the link. Very helpful thoughts. One of the reasons why I favour child communion is because I believe that Christ’s primary command in reference to it was ‘do this’, rather than ‘meditate upon this’.

      • jdlinton says:

        Exactly! And it is amazing the way that the Lords Supper is formulated in 1 Cor. 11 has echos from the old covenant renewal events in the OT. The Lords Supper is a congregational event, not an individual one.

  3. doulos tou Theou says:

    Reblogged this on A Glorious Revolution and commented:
    Well worth your time.

  4. acilius says:

    Very interesting. On most Sunday mornings, my wife and I attend two Christian gatherings. At 8 AM, we go to an Anglican service. Then at 11, we go to the Quakers. Different as they are, the two traditions have similar views of the proper function of sermons.

    The Anglicans tend to believe that the role of the sermon, like that of each of the other prescribed parts of the liturgy, is to sweep away the distractions that might be buzzing about in one’s mind when one enters the worship space. So the penitential elements sweep away, first, the sinful preoccupations that may have taken root in our minds, then the idle guilt in which we dwell on the fact that we have been in the grips of those preoccupations. The lessons and the creed sweep away any impulse to enter theological or political disputes, reminding us as they do that we not only agree on a great deal, but that whatever disagreements do divide us have been around so long that it is unlikely we will miss anything by taking a pass on any particular opportunity to try to persuade people of the rightness of our views. Hymns and corporate prayers and greetings dramatize the fact that we’re all in this together, sweeping personal resentments aside for the time being. The preacher must have a sense of what is going on with the congregation to know which of these distractions is likely to represent the biggest distraction at any given iteration of the Eucharist and design the sermon to put some extra force behind the broom aimed at it.

    Our 11 AM gathering is more of a “Friends Church” than a “Quaker meeting.” They have hymns, accompanied by an organ; a choir, accompanied by a professional pianist; a sermon, delivered by a professional preacher; and other formal practices, all laid out in a printed program and introduced by cues that must be expressed in precisely the correct words. However, the climax of all this formalization is a period of shared listening, in which we sit for ten minutes or so, many times in complete silence, but not infrequently hearing from two or three Friends who feel that the Holy Spirit has entrusted them with a message for us. Quite often this message is something along the lines of, “I forgot to mention it during the announcements, but I brought some cabbages from my garden, please take them home with you.” Be that as it may, each of those liturgical elements found its way into the practice of our branch of Quakerdom as a preparation for that shared silence. As our Anglican friends want to clear their minds to fully experience the direct encounter with Christ they find in the reception of the Eucharist, so our Friends friends want to clear their minds to fully experience the direct encounter with Christ they find “wherever two or more are gathered in [His] name.”

    My wife is more of an old-fashioned Quaker than are most in our meeting. For her, the sheer act of sitting still and waiting for the Holy Spirit in a circle of others doing the same is quite enough to achieve the clarity needed for the sacramental experience. If another should speak, or pray, or break into song, that is all the better, but she does not find it necessary. The physical act, as you put it, is sufficient to prepare her for an encounter with Christ.

  5. “[…] the things that the various participants in the liturgical event of preaching do are of great significant [<- significance?] and formative power.”

  6. bethyada says:

    This is very good Alastair.

    And a readable length! 🙂

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  8. Tapani says:

    Thank you for this. I posted this on various social media with the comment that you manage to articulate (yet again) something that I have felt very profoundly but haven’t managed to articulate properly.

    Repetition is the mother of learning. I got an A in A level maths (a long time ago; wouldn’t pass GCSE now, I suspect!)—not because I could draw on this particular lesson or that for the answers, but because I had acquired the necessary knowledge, skills and attitudes over 14 years of mathematical education. I can recall just about one specific lesson (first term of lower sixth), and that because we were being something important (differentiation, from first principles) which I failed to grasp in the lesson and was, therefore, very frustrated. And yet I got that A.

    I do wonder how much of this emphasis on memorability is a by-product, or at least sister, of the experiential turn in Christianity. We seek experiences, feelings, in worship in general, so we also seek experiences (feelings, or thoughts to hang on to) in sermons too. And if we don’t get those experiences but merely individual moments of life-long Christian formation, we are dissatisfied.

    • Thanks for the comments, Tapani.

      Yes, I think that your last paragraph is on target. There is an overvaluation of such things as novelty and spontaneity too, something which I have discussed several times in the past (here, for instance).

  9. Betty-Ann says:

    Reminded me of this from Screwtape Letters: “At the very least, they can be persuaded that the bodily position makes no difference to their prayers; for they constantly forget, what you must always remember, that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls.”

    • Great quotation!

      There is another Mark Searle quotation along similar lines that I was tempted to place in the post itself, but didn’t, as it related more to the rest of the liturgy: “Kneeling, for instance, is not an expression of our humanity: it is more an invitation to discover what reality looks like when we put ourselves in that position. The texts of Scripture and the images of the liturgy are not didactic messages wrapped up in some decorative covering which can be thrown away when the content is extracted. They are images and sets of images to be toyed with, befriended, rubbed over and over again, until, gradually and sporadically, they yield flashes of insight and encounter with the “Reality” of which they sing. Their purpose is not to give rise to thought (at least, not immediately), but to mediate encounter.”

    • Andrew Dickson says:

      Exactly. Posture doesn’t manipulate God but it sure seems to have an undeniable effect upon my heart as I pray. One can pray in any position of course, no magic involved, but it’s not just the mind involved. Sadly those in my particular Presbyterian/Reformed Church circles seem to think it’s only about the mind. Done for the right reasons the spiritual disciplines are very beneficial to one’s growth in humility, obedience and joy.

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  12. philjames says:

    Granting his paradigm for ‘going to church,’ I believe that Mr. Miller can be shown that there is much being missed in terms of formation; but I think this also illustrates a major difference between most Evangelicals and the rest of the church. Evangelical’s meet to ‘worship’ in the sense of praising. They meet to learn. They meet to encourage each other. I agree that all of these things take place in the more ancient branches of the church, but none of these things are what the more ancient parts of the church are up to on the Lord’s Day; and more significantly all of them can be done elsewhere and in different contexts. You don’t have to ‘go to church’ for any of them. I can praise while fishing; learn while commuting and meet for accountability over a hamburger and fries.

    Traditions that unselfconsciously identify themselves as catholic (including Lutherans) don’t meet as the church for worship, or teaching or mutual edification. Rather their bulletins will tell you that they are meeting for The Divine Service, The Liturgy, Mass or Holy Communion- within which they will offer praise, be instructed and edified. One cannot have communion apart from the body gathered as the body. One cannot have Xian communion with oneself.

    • Very important points. I was trying to gesture briefly at these issues in my fourth paragraph, while not taking them up within the main body of the post itself. Also, while the ‘liturgical action’ of the sermon shapes us, the character of this action is shaped by its situation within the broader liturgical event. In a church for which communion is the climax of the Divine Service, the sermon is always, to some extent or other, ‘table talk’.

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  16. A says:

    Your understanding of the place and purpose of the sermon is far off base.

    In the early church, Acts era, sermons did not take place on a weekly basis. You can read about it in your Bible. Periodically an apostle like Paul or Apollos would arrive in town and preach to the brethren. But usually sermons were reserved for the uninitiated unbelievers in the temple.

    As a rule, the modus operandi for believers was to meet in small groups and interact breaking of bread, prayer together, and a mixture of teaching and discussion.

    Sunday school is the closest incarnation to the early church and what drove it. Not a worship service center around a sermon.

    When the church stops driving their services and church life with a sermon-based approach I will come back. Until then the closest I will get his hanging out in the lobby chatting with other believers or helping in the classrooms. It is an arrogant and remodel that chooses to place a sermon at the center of the traditional Acts era model.

  17. A Guest (Wintery's Friend) says:

    After the Acts era, however, as mentioned in Justin Martyr (First Apology, ch. 67) and the Didache (around Chapter 14), the Christians did gather in groups, large and small.
    Periodically, an evangelist (“traveling proclaimer of the Good News”) would show up; the believers were to examine the message before providing hospitality (as this was in effect agreeing with the message / supporting the evangelist).
    If a letter arrived from an apostle, they were to all gather and have it read aloud for everyone’s edification. This was to be copied and transmitted to other churches for their edification as per Col. 4:16 (“And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea.”)
    By around 70 AD, there was more of an institutionalized/established church, so you get more writing on the role of bishops (overseers, episkopoi) and presbyters.
    Amusingly, “preaching” or “proclaiming” was primarily to those who were not believers and “teaching” was to those who were believers. So what we call “preaching” (i.e., sermons) in the Protestant tradition would be actually “teaching” (i.e., inculcating the doctrine of the Faith).

    I do think that Christians should realize that they can worship the Lord in many ways, from serving (ushering, assisting with communion, doing overhead slides, providing hospitality, providing childcare, and in many other ways), in music, in corporate prayer, through singing melodically and/or focusing on the words, etc.

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