Reflection #21 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 21 in a series of random reflections I have been amassing over the past couple of years since retiring from steady, local-church, “weekend warrior” worship ministry.  These ruminations are in no particular order, and they vary in significance.  I welcome discussion on any of them.

Reflection #21: Good, theologically solid, grace-filled sermons really can be delivered in fewer than 45 minutes.

One of the hallmarks of most contemporary worship services is the primacy of the sermon.  Every other vestige of the worship of days gone by got jettisoned by the founding fathers and mothers of contemporary worship.  Hymnals?  Gone.  Organ?  Gone.  Baptistry?  Gone.  Altar?  Gone.  Stained-glass windows?  Gone.  Crosses?  Gone, at least, most of them.  Lengthy sermons that take up more than half the total time of the jonathan_edwardsservice, that shine the spotlight (these days, literally) on one single person as the primary and culminating facilitator of the people’s worship, that (in their worst manifestations) promote a celebrity-pastor culture that wages war on a significant theological lynchpin of the Church (the priesthood of all believers)?  Repackaged as “teachings,” perhaps, but as alive and well as they were in were in the days of any of the famously long-winded pulpiteers (Jonathan Edwards, for example) of Christian history.

And yet, as my wife and I have traveled Chicagoland visiting churches, we have often been profoundly blessed, challenged, and encouraged by sermons that have been much shorter than the 45 minutes afforded most contemporary worship sermons (especially in the megachurches).  Sometimes we’ve heard these sermons in mainline churches, which typically place far less time and emphasis on the pastor’s oration and much more time on the Table, Scripture reading, and other “liturgical elements” (recitations of creeds, responsive readings, corporate confessions, etc.).  But we’ve heard short (relatively speaking) messages even in churches that pursue two-fold worship (worship set and sermon), often in churches that have a longer worship set up front than most. (In one multiple-site, mini-megachurch in our area, the pastor gets 25 minutes.  A friend, he’s told me that though he balked at the time restriction initially, he’s found he’s been able to flourish amid the restraints, forcing him to get quickly to the essence of his message and eliminating anything that doesn’t sensibly lead to or follow after the climax of his words.)

I don’t have a right-vs.-wrong opinion here.  I simply want to point out that if you can embrace the notion that the word God has given pastors for any given Sunday morning might be delivered as or even more effectively via a shorter sermon, you then allow for the possibility that God might have equally important words He wishes to convey via different channels other than the preaching.  In a day and age where educators readily acknowledge the benefit of delivering content in multiple ways–i.e., understanding that not all of us are aural learners who learn best via one-way lectures–there might be some exciting tweaks that could break into the status quo where contemporary worship’s general service order and flow is concerned.  Here’s hoping!

The Lord be with you!

Coming next week, Lord willing: Greeters in the average contemporary American church. 

About Warren Anderson

Emmaus Road Worshipers is written by Dr. Warren Anderson, Director of the Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts at Judson University (Elgin, Ill.), where he also directs the Judson University Choir. A Judson alumnus, he has served his alma mater in a number of capacities over the past 30+ years, especially the chapel ministry, which he led for 22 years. From 1982-2016, Dr. Anderson served six different churches--American Baptist (X2), Converge, Evangelical Free Church of America, Roman Catholic, and United Methodist--as a "weekend warrior" worship musician/pastor. He is a former member of the editorial board of Worship Leader magazine. The views expressed in this blog are not necessarily the views of Judson University.
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