April 7, 2014

Cover Feature

I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone remark, “I just don’t seem to get anything out of church.”

Implied in that statement is the sense that the worship service is a spectator event, at which members of the congregation critique the worship participants and pass judgment on the experience as if it were a concert, play, or motion picture.

And of course, since the central figure in most worship services is the preacher, he or she gets the most scrutiny. If the sermon misses the mark, or doesn’t “speak” to everyone in the congregation, it’s the preacher who is often blamed.

An Audience of One

The problem with such a generalization is that it assumes there’s a “one size fits all” model of communication; that the same message should have the same appeal to retirees as it does to teens, or single parents, or immigrants, or high school dropouts, etc. How does a preacher effectively reach a congregation that includes members who are lifelong Seventh-day Adventists, those who have been Adventists only a short time, as well as “seekers,” those who know very little about the Bible?

It also ignores the fact that communication during the past 25 years—indeed, the past two years—has changed exponentially. Gone are the days when John Wesley, George Whitefield, or William Miller could command audiences of thousands just by going to a city square and setting up a platform. The lack of popular entertainment in those settings made every sermon a spectator event. Now, as the size of auditoriums has increased, along with the “wow” factor at most athletic and entertainment events, the appeal of preaching as entertainment has diminished.

Add to that the way we watch, listen, and communicate today, and you have a communication revolution. Admit it: how many of us watch TV with one hand on the remote control? How many of us have Twitter accounts, or follow somebody who does? Never before in the history of human civilization has communicating in 140 characters been an art form.

Next time you go to church, notice how many times people look at their smartphones (and not just to follow the texts referred to in the sermon). While you’re at it, notice the difference in age represented in the congregation. In most congregations in North America, people between the ages of 18 and 35 are most likely to be underrepresented, perhaps because they’re least likely to sit still for a 45-minute monologue about some mildly relevant Bible topic.

Focus, Focus, Focus

There are preachers of a certain age who, after spending most of their careers preaching in twentieth-century pulpits, are content to preach as they always have. And because they preach mostly to congregations of a certain age, they have little inclination or incentive to change. And truly, some members feel shortchanged if the preacher stops after preaching just 35 or 40 minutes, but those members most often have gray hair, or no hair at all.

The members who are taking their place seem less likely to feel cheated if the sermon doesn’t last for a certain amount of time. Indeed, they may bless the preacher who gets right to the point and focuses like a laser on the main point.

Chris Oberg, lead pastor of the La Sierra University church, confesses: “I’m always thinking about people’s time.” She limits her sermons to 28 to 30 minutes.

The La Sierra University church also has what it calls a “liturgical service,” consistent with a more formal (some would say “high church”) style. The service at 8:30 on Sabbath morning at La Sierra, for example, has a scripture reading from the Old Testament, one from the New Testament, and one from the Gospels. In this highly structured service the preacher has 10 to 12 minutes to make a point. “It’s a great exercise in preaching,” says Oberg.

Although it’s a formula that goes back centuries, it reflects the shorter attention spans demonstrated by society in general. Network news can give an “in-depth” report about some far-reaching issue or event in three to five minutes. An in-depth report on National Public Radio rarely lasts more than 10 minutes. TED Talks (an acronym for technology, entertainment, design) are among the most popular audio and video downloads on the Internet, and most of them can be listened to in 20 minutes—or less.

One could argue that the 11:00 hour is nowhere near the same as network news and TED talks, much less like sitcoms and reality TV, where an episode tells a story in 28 minutes. But do sermons have to take 45 minutes to give us a dose of reality and connect us to our Creator?

“We’re narrowing our attention spans all the time,” says Oberg. “People are consuming more and more media, which means we’re connected and lonely; we’re connected and still longing for community.”

Scratching That Itch

For Michael Kelly, senior pastor of the Mount Rubidoux Adventist Church in Riverside, California, the sermon is all about being relevant. “We’re talking about things people care about,” he says. The young adults, who make up a significant portion of his congregation, appreciate sermons that speak to the issues that affect their daily lives: dating, relationships, and sex, for example. “We try to scratch where people are itching.”

Andres Flores leads the Epic Seventh-day Adventist Church in Chicago. Meeting in a theater building in a vibrant, urban setting, Flores’ group conducts services designed to appeal to young adults, hipsters, postmoderns, artistic types in a casual, informal setting. “We’re mainly trying to reach unchurched people in that community. For me, it’s all about loving people and loving Jesus,” he says. “We challenge people to practice the gospel; we like to create doers, not just thinkers. We challenge people with every sermon, giving them little tasks as a response to the message.”

And that’s the point: The worship service is never about the preacher. It’s about making connections: with God, with each other, and with the community. It goes back to the first century, when our spiritual ancestors gathered in homes as small groups. Surrounded by paganism and first-century immorality, they gathered for moral support and to share experiences from the past week. If they were lucky, they read a portion of a letter from one of the apostles, a story or two from the Gospels, or a passage from the Old Testament.

As Christianity developed institutionally and congregations grew, built their own buildings, and became more clergy-centric, the sermon became the focus of their shared time together. To the point that today, two millennia later, there’s often a sign in front of a building with the words “Seventh-day Adventist Church” and the name of the pastor, as if the pastor is part of the draw.

True, there are still preachers who can attract audiences in the thousands, but they’re not typically preaching in Adventist churches. The Adventist preachers most of us know are first of all pastors, serving a single church or a multichurch district. That means they give Bible studies, make hospital visits, chair one or more church boards, and prepare sermons in their spare time.

That may satisfy their congregations most of the time, but in view of the tremendous media competition for peoples’ attention, preachers can’t be satisfied going into the pulpit with a few random thoughts strung together with a text or two connected to a quotation from Ellen White.

There are people in their congregations whose marriages are in trouble. Some parents don’t know what to do with their kids. Others are losing hope because they’ve lost their jobs and they’re getting desperate. Is there a word from the Lord for these people?

Spiritual Discipline

Initials such as M.Div. or D.Min. behind a person’s name do not necessarily make them good communicators. “Some preacher
s are OK with ‘I have this title, therefore I’m a preacher,’ ” says Chad Stuart, senior pastor of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Visalia, California. “No, you’re not,” he says. “You still have to get better; you have to think about it; you have to prepare.” Those who do it well get heard. He mentions some services that consist entirely of preaching, and says he’s noticed that some people show up just for the preaching part of the 11:00 hour, skipping what some describe as “preliminaries.”

Flexibility is key to communicating in the twenty-first century. In addition to his 860-member congregation in Visalia, Stuart is also involved in a church plant in another one of Visalia’s six zip codes, called the Ark. “While big isn’t bad,” he says, “sometimes big can get comfortable.” The style at the Ark is less formal, more compact, meaning it is more likely to appeal to people who might not feel comfortable in a traditional Adventist church. “Of the 27 people we’ve baptized in the past two and a half years, 24 have been unchurched,” says Stuart.

The La Sierra University church has three services. In addition to the liturgical service, it offers what it calls “[email protected]:30,” a more traditional Adventist service, and “[email protected],” a contemporary service with livelier music that’s designed with university students and young adults in mind. Oberg’s sermons at these two services are sometimes the same, sometimes the same with different illustrations, or they may be completely different.

The best preachers have a plan; they preach series on different topics or books of the Bible. They coordinate their sermons to coincide with different events on the church calendar, such as graduations, Vacation Bible Schools, church anniversaries, and events commemorating Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection. “There’s a rhythm to the sermonic calendar,” says Oberg. “After a ‘heavy’ series, on Leviticus, for example, you have to give people a break.”

Same Message, Different Voices

Good preaching isn’t going away, but it is changing. Different congregations, responding to the needs of different demographics, are rearranging their services to suit the needs of their different constituencies. They’re also moving away from a format that’s centered on the pastor and the sermon to one that focuses more on the congregation.

Chad Stuart doesn’t wait until Sabbath morning to communicate with his congregation, or with anyone else who reads his blog or follows him on Twitter and Facebook. When he has to be away, he has a handful of speakers who communicate for a living.

But what would happen if congregations were more deliberate about making services more interactive, less like a performance?

At Mount Rubidoux, Michael Kelly encourages his members to post comments on Twitter during the service. He maintains that a number of people have attended subsequent services based on those “tweets.”

Chris Oberg is toying with the idea of placing microphones at strategic places in the sanctuary, so that at a certain point in the sermon members of the congregation can react to her message. “I believe in the power of the spoken word in Scripture, and I don’t think our commitment has to be compromised. But more creative alternatives might be in our future. We all come from the model of the preacher as the paid professional, but there’s also the priesthood of the pulpit model.”

Communication at its basic level is all about stories. Everybody has a story, and who’s to say the preacher’s story automatically has more validity than anyone else’s?

One reason preaching remains successful is because we still have entire generations of people who are used to a particular worship model in which preaching is the center point. So a lot of success comes from people being comfortable with that model. When it’s done well, it continues to resonate with people.

How would Adventist preaching—and the 11:00 hour specifically—change if they were directed at new believers or seekers for truth?

An Hour That Transforms

Perhaps you’re familiar with the famous and facetious definition of preaching as “the art of talking in someone else’s sleep.” Today’s preachers can’t afford to be complacent. Neither can they just copy the style (or sermons) from somebody or someplace else.

In geographic locations where Adventists tend to congregate near hospitals, universities, and publishing houses, the competition is fierce. There are lots of options. Church Web sites post the preacher and sermon title for each week’s service, and people who are mere consumers tend to flit from place to place.

That’s why it’s important to create a sense of community, for pastors to know the individuals to whom they’re preaching. That’s why in small churches, perhaps with only a few dozen members, and no other Adventist churches for 50 miles in any direction, preachers have to be skilled communicators and take their craft seriously. They play a major part in creating that community.

Today’s preachers and worship leaders have to be good listeners. They have to be miners of feedback, good and bad. Chris Oberg calls it “the sacred art of listening.” This is more than “Good sermon, Pastor” that most preachers hear when they greet people at the door following the sermon.

For Andres Flores, the interaction he craves is transformed lives. “The best Adventist preaching produces disciples and disciple makers,” he says. “The question I always ask is ‘Are people being transformed?’ ” He points out that most Adventist preaching is addressed to Adventists who have heard variations on the same messages for decades.

“The big win for me is not just that people feel inspired and encouraged, but all of that needs to lead people to be doers of the gospel in their context,” says Flores.

Michael Kelly evaluates the effectiveness of the worship experience by something tangible as well. “The biggest thing is if somebody brings a friend or family member who usually doesn’t have a lot to do with church, that tells me that something good is happening, because they trust the environment, they trust the content of what’s being said, that it’s not going to push somebody away.”

The 11:00 hour (or 9:30, noon, or 2:30) is significant not just for the sermon people hear, but because it represents the one time during the week when longtime and new believers of different ages and backgrounds come together to experience the presence and power of God.

“Preaching doesn’t always take place in a pulpit,” says Kelly. “The apostle Paul says our lives are letters. Preaching will always be relevant. The form it takes may change, but people will always have a need for someone to give them the Word.”