Saturday, April 28, 2012

Nathan Colquhoun: People Don't Just Change [and sermons don't change them]

One of things that I have grown to realize about people, is that they don’t change. One of the things that I have grown to realize about myself is that I don’t change either. Another thing I have grown to realize about myself is that I want other people to change.

There is a plethora of reasons as to why we don’t change. It ranges from apathy to ignorance to arrogance to rebellion. We don’t like it. We don’t create spaces in our lives so change happens. We strive passionately for the mundane and familiar as if our sanity rests in them.

While preparing my message on Saul on the Road to Damascus this weekend I began to see the story in an entirely new way. Saul does nothing. In fact, he was doing the opposite of good. Saul didn’t change. He saw Jesus and then he didn’t really have a choice to start living differently.

The problem is, with stories like this, is that they are so opposite to how we actually see the world. We think that a good sermon (and trust me I give great sermons) will change people. We think that when people recognize the destructive ways of their actions they will change. We think that we can manipulate people into changing. We think that a persuasive argument will change people. We think that when someone has a child it will change them. We think that we can just decide to change when we want. It’s just not true. This rarely happens.

This seems particularly true to me, that we can have an expectation that a sermon can and should be a life-changing experience. A kind of apocalyptic catalyst that shakes us to the core and makes things "real". This is ideally part of what can happen but the sermon should not be what accomplishes this, what should accomplish this is not the sermon itself at all as a delivery method but the content and substance to which it points.  To play with my previously used illustration of icons on a desktop the sermon should be the icon that leads to the right program.  The sermon is not itself the anti-malware application that cleans up your infected computer, the work and teaching of Christ with the power of the Holy Spirit does that. The sermon can be the icon you could click on that will let you understand where the download is.  Now don't get me wrong I am not even remotely advocating a synergistic soteriology here, I'm discussing a distinctly post-conversion life for this post. 

Many an American Christian will understand the point of the service to be hearing the sermon. Obviously, though, there are many Christians for whom this is not the real point of the service because the real point of the service culminates in communion.

I’ve been going to the local Anglican church on Sunday mornings before theStory service. They do an ancient liturgy that has lots of call and response, no songs, a short sermon and then ends in Eucharist. One Sunday this older couple was late, as they forgot about the time change. When they got there the priest reassured them that there was still time for them to partake in the Eucharist. He then stopped the liturgy and then distributed the sacrament to them. Then we continued on with the last part of the liturgy.

In any of my past churches, the minister would have been upset that the couple missed his sermon.

The sermon is an important thing but it is not necessarily a sacrament. Yet it can seem as though evangelical Americans can view the sermon rather than communion or even baptism as the most important sacrament without even thinking of the sermon in any formally sacramental terms at all.  It is the sermon wwe anticipate will sanctify and challenge us.  In slightly less pious jargon we can find many a guy saying "The sermon really kicked my ass this week" and be excited about that.  Why? Because it's a given that the sermon made me feel a certain way.  But this feeling a certain way may not in itself mean anything other than that my ears were tickled.

When I was a teenager I started attending a Pentecostal church I hadn't visited before and visited the Wednesday night youth group service.  I had been Pentecostal for the better chunk of my life and so I would go to Wednesday night services sometimes.  It might, in hindsight, have also served as a convenient opportunity for my parents to have a date night if the kids were left fo r afew hours at a Pentecostal youth group.  :-)  Well, I felt nervous at this youth group because the youth pastor preached dense topical sermons. By dense I mean he might unleash somewhere between twenty to even forty biblical texts discussing a topic about Christian life and discipline and he expected teenagers (like me) to simply keep up.  For longtime readers this was the Pentecostal youth pastor who read Gordon Fee, Kierkegaard, and shared his thoughts about them with me. 

I felt nervous in this church setting because I was hearing a lot of scripture and it inspired me and challenged me. I realized in a dim way that I did not know or understand the Bible as well as I thought and that the teachings of Jesus would require some struggle and engagement. I realized I knew even less than I thought I did and yet I was excited by an opportunity to learn. The sermons were opportunities to learn and though important in themselves were simply catalysts for a greater, broader realization that was an invitation.  It was through those sorts of sermons that the words of Christ and His apostles beckoned with Jesus' words "Follow me."

A sermon can do this without leaving you with this feeling that your life has been radically or shockingly changed. The observation that if any one is in Christ--new creation is offset by the observation that we should no longer be conformed to the world but be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Thus sanctification is the long and slow and often boring process of, as some put it, matching your practice to your position in Christ.

The sermon, meanwhile, can be a kind of idol if you come to it expecting it to shock or change you.  Merely hearing words said to you may not change your life.  You may hear the words "You're hired" and that will change your life but that means you're starting a new job. The words indicate a catalyst, a process has begun.  A sermon can and should challenge but it will also invite. It may also seem to have no observable effect. It does not need to have an observable effect because there's a difference between teaching that elicits a Pavlovian response and teaching that cultivates the formation of a person.The more Pavlovian a response to a "good" sermon the more serious the risk is that the sermon is leveraged on forms of emotional manipulation rather than a responsible exposition of a scriptural text.

People don’t change. I do think however that people can be formed. We can be formed through disciplines, rituals, repetition and traditions over time. This is part of the reason I like what the Anglicans do on a Sunday morning. It’s almost as if they have this recognition and understanding that they aren’t going to change because of a convincing sermon. Rather, they realize that they are formed through these rituals and through the body and blood of Christ by doing it over and over again week after week, year after year.

This is why I’m becoming less and less inclined to try to write convincing sermons in order to cast vision or spark change within our community. Sermons don’t change people. It just doesn’t work. I feel like sermons rather just create a guise of change. Just talking about change somehow makes people feel like they have changed.

All liturgy can become dead liturgy and in the last twenty years I have come to the conclusion that while low liturgical churches where the focal point is a guy preaching for an hour or more may not seem like "dead liturgy" to people who think of high liturgical customs when they think of dead liturgy the hour-plus long sermon can be its own form of dead liturgy, too. There are a lot of people who may not realize that every gathering of Christians has some kind of liturgy (i.e. the things people do) and that every thing that can be done in any gathering of Christians can be dead, and often will be dead.  Behold we are dying and yet we live.  Make no mistake, go to a Pentecostal church and write down what gets done.  A few songs, some announcements, sermon, offering, more songs (that will tend to be slower in many cases, and more reverent) and then maybe some faster stuff again and a prayer. Many people who think what their church does isn't liturgy are trapped, as it were, in the liturgical closet. They are, in a paradoxical way, liturgically raging closet cases who don't know what they do in church settings is actually liturgy.  It's not the high church Julian calendar type, maybe, but it's still a liturgy.

The sermon as part of a larger liturgy makes sense. The sermon as the central role for forming and shaping a community needs to stop. So maybe we should stop putting all our eggs into the sermon basket? Imagine if we spent half the time writing liturgies as we did writing sermons? I think it would be annoying at first, and probably wouldn’t notice much different. I think however, in the long run, we would start to see communities reordering their lives to better participate in the Mission of God.

Definitely, the sermon as part of a larger liturgy is crucial. It is valuable.  I agree that the sermon as the central role for forming and shaping a community needs to stop. In fact that is arguably how a majority of personality cults in American religion take shape, the very simple reason that when one person's preaching takes on the central rolefor forming and shaping a community by being the majority content in any given church service (i.e. the longest part by far) that indicates that the sermon is playing too big a role and is expected to do too much. It's possible to forget, if one has made so crucial the sermon as a life-changer that Paul himself could say God was pleased to use the foolishness of preaching.

Obviously I also agree about the part where we need to stop putting all our eggs into the sermon basket.  I would not go so far as to say liturgy changes people, which of course is not what Colquhoun is suggesting, either. But something I have come to appreciate at my church is that the work of the people (i.e. liturgy) includes both individual and corporate confession.  This was not practically a reality in the church I used to be at.  One of the perennial weaknesses of Christian communities I've observed, at least in evangelical Protestant American ones, is that there is an emphasis on individual sin that often trumps any consideration of corporate sin.  Further, there is often a problem that emerges even within this domain because sin is generally described and discussed as done knowingly.  Many sins are inadvertant and corporate rather than simply individual and done knowingly.

I'll close with this proposal and observation--go to a church and consider all the songs, consider the length of the sermon in proportion to all other parts of the service.  If the sermon is half or more of a service and the central and dominant portion (i.e. the middle 50% bookended by 25% stuff on either side) you "might" have a case where the sermon is considered too important. Or things might be just fine.  This isn't really a litmus test I'm proposing here. What I'm trying to propose is that every church has a liturgy and each liturgy will include not just what we as Christians do to worship the Lord by what we say and do, the liturgies we practice speak of what we acknowledge God has done and what we invite God to do.

So where ever you may be at for your "church home" consider what you and your fellow Christians say and do in a gathering. What do people say and share about who God is, who the Father, Son and Spirit are? What do people confess? What do people proclaim? What do people speak about God's work and what do people invite God to do? These things may not always be obvious or easy to observe.  What part of the gathering do you most look forward to and why? If your favorite part is the sermon when was the last time you heard a sermon that changed your life?  Have you heard a sermon that changed your life besides the one you may have heard where you decided to become a Christian (if that's even how you decided to become a Christian)?


The Blog bites better than the Bullet. said...


chris e said...

Though to take this further, is it really the immersion in the liturgy that causes change, and how do we separate this out from just the secular effects of immersion in a community with a certain value structure.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Very good question, chris e. From a sociological perspective or analysis of psychological dynamics there might not really be ANY difference between being shaped by a liturgy and the effects of immersion in a community with a certain value structure. The liturgy of a church would simply be the MEANS through which the value structure of the community is conveyed. This could explain why battles of liturgy are important, couldn't it? I admit I'm being sort of playful and not entirely series in suggesting this, while still granting it is a proposal with serious implications.

chris e said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
chris e said...

To continue on this line of thought; One of the critiques of Robert Putnam's work has been that there could be a lot of self-sorting going on.

If that is the case, then battles over liturgy are quite likely to be a proxy for something else entirely, maybe the church actually acting as the church in attracting a number of different groups with somewhat disjoint community values. Taken this way, battles over liturgy actually could be quite a positive sign, and conformity in and of itself would not necessarily be good (unless the wider community was fairly homogeneous).

Even if there isn't self-sorting of some kind going on there's another troubling possibility for those at the Holiness end of the spectrum. Simply put, most of the things that are usually put down to the results of sanctification, are down to the sociological process of being born into a new community. Real spiritual change is hidden. There are obvious applications to change via community group here.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

One of my longtime friends used to be a charismatic/Pentecostal Christian and is now an atheist and he's looked back on his Christian days in charismatic circles with some sadness and believes that the Pentecostal/charismatic style of spiritual made it harder for him to recognize that his emotional cycles were symptomatic of bipolar disorder because all his mood swings were so filtered through charismatic spirituality he didn't recognize what they were.

In another case, a woman I've known for a while used to complain about how spiritual attacks she experienced in a politically liberal state were so oppressive they felt palpably oppressive. She turned out to have diabetes and had gotten congestive heart failure and "may" have interprted physiological symptoms of blood sugar issues as signs of spiritual warfare attacks. I realize these two cases are anecdotal but one of the reasons I came to feel uncomfortable with Pentecostal spirituality was the culture seemed to invite, if not create, a spiritual formation process where people would interpret signs of physical and mental illness through a filter of spiritual warfare and End Times manias without reocgnizing signs of illnesses that needed serious and even immediate treatment.

Of course a lot that gets called sanctification may actually be the result of a sociological process even in cases where Pentecostal or Wesleyan concepts of sanctification are involved. I wonder if the problem becomes more acute in these traditions then elsewhere because at least in other traditions "ordinary means of grace" could account for even what might be called a sociological element to sanctification.