A recent sermon greatly disappointed me. One reason was that it seemed to be so similar to hundreds or thousands of sermons that I had heard in the past. A second reason was that this sermon really stood out for its lack of thoughtfulness in its content. It seemed to have all of the components of a standardized sermon. Many people are disturbed by standardized testing in our schools. We should also be disturbed by what has become standardized preaching in our churches.
It seems as if ministers are taught some standard idea on which to base their sermons, then most of them constantly recycle it throughout their careers. It is likely that many people want to hear a version of the standardized sermon because it is familiar and comfortable. If the pastor preaches to challenge you to grow as a disciple, will you allow him to remain employed? Are you willing to accept changes in your life so the way you live may help transform the world? Is the minister more interested in career advancement or in Jesus? I suppose it is scary to attempt leading your disciples out of the boat to walk on the water when they may toss you the anchor and row away.
I have discussed this thought with some ministers and found that churches tend to come down hard on approaches that are considered too unorthodox. Some have been threatened and even fired for introducing new ideas and ways of thinking.
I have known a few ministers who generate truly new approaches over the years. To me, this indicates that they have grown in relationship to God over time. This is not to say that there is anything bad about the typical minister. It says more about how the church has failed to teach a full understanding of Jesus and the importance of a living relationship with God. If you proclaim that you are a follower of Jesus or if you are a church member, are you willing to accept challenges that insightful sermons may present to you? Do you want a meaningful relationship with God? Can you bear watching Jesus walk on the water or will you withdraw in fright and attempt to drive him away?
Jesus centered sermons and teaching in the church can guide you into a living relationship with God. I feel standardized sermons and related teachings fail to lead you to a mature and more complete relationship with God. While there may be many people who are unwilling to take the next step in discipleship or incapable of understanding how to take the next step, those who are willing and able but are not shown the path by the church are being short changed.
I have found that the standardized sermon contains several and possibly all of the following ideas:
1. Your sin prevents you from being accepted by God. This usually means God will not allow you into heaven when you die or that God will not help you when you need help.
2. You cannot avoid sin. This seems to be most often attributed to the idea of original sin that has been passed down to us from the first humans. Sometimes, it is attributed to God giving each of us free will.
3. God demands payment for sin, so God sacrificed Jesus as payment for your sin.
4. You will face judgement for your sins. This may be stated as “you must face judgement for your sins”.
5. If you have declared certain beliefs, your sins will be forgiven. This usually means believing as the church says you should believe.
6. You really only need to believe a certain way or profess certain beliefs. Behavior is not so critical since it will be impossible to do much about your behavior due to your sinful nature
7. God planned for Jesus to be slaughtered on the cross so there would be payment for your sins.
8. Jesus appeared on earth to serve as the sacrifice for your sins. This was the focus of Jesus on earth.
9. You are frequently told that you must please God in your worship, giving, and with other actions.
10. There are solutions to the human predicament described in items one through nine.
11. God’s grace is a gift that allows us to obtain salvation (enter heaven). God wants us to join God in heaven and grace is free which means you can do nothing to obtain grace or salvation.
When you hear a sermon or read a lesson that includes some or all of statements one through ten, how do you reconcile those statements with statement eleven? You are told that you cannot earn your way into God’s favor or into heaven. Nothing you can do can possibly pay for your sin. God’s love for you provides you with God’s free grace. Yet, usually simultaneously, you are told that somehow, your sin must be paid for. You are told there are things you must do so you can be accepted by God. You must please God. You will be judged. You cannot avoid sin. What you must do is usually as simple as being baptized, taking communion, professing some creed as prescribed by the church, and other such actions in support of the church.
The point to notice is that you are being told to relate to God in ways that are incongruent. These statements cannot all be true. God does not accept you because of your sin. You cannot avoid sin since Adam and Eve failed so we are all condemned by that original sin. God demands payment for sin so, Jesus died a brutal death to pay for your sin. Why? Because God loves you so much and because you are not good enough to serve as a sacrifice. Still, you will be told that you will face judgement. Sometimes, it is implied that your actions in life will be judged. Most of the time you are told that if you accept the sacrifice of Jesus for your sins, that will allow you to pass through judgement to heaven. You are told that you must do things that are pleasing to God. Despite all of these requirements, you are told grace is free because God loves you and there is nothing you can do to earn God’s grace. The circling can become dizzying.
In the very same sermons or lessons, you can hear that God’s grace or salvation is a gift, that it is free because God loves us so, then hear that you must do certain things (usually connected with joining the church). One of the things you are likely to be told is that you must accept Jesus as your savior because Jesus came to pay for your sins. God demanded blood and death because God loves us? This makes it free because Jesus suffered? Does it really make sense that there is the marvelous, wonderful, always benevolent God, who loves the world, yet God would slaughter Jesus, also called God’s son, because of something you and I have done?
Grace is free? The very fact that you must do something, even if it is just to profess a belief means that there is indeed a price on God’s grace. Therefore, such grace is not free. If Jesus had to die a horrible death to pay for your sins, how is that free? How is a father loving if he is willing to sacrifice his child for the sake of unworthy, sinful others?
Where does this leave you with God? The answer is in the Bible. It begins with the story of creation and ends in the story of Jesus. The creation story tells you that God created the world and said it was all good. Then, your first indication of what happens with your gift of free will from God is that humans used it to make choices that came between them and God. When those first humans were born, God said they were good. The exercise of free will introduced evil. There is nothing in Genesis that says that you are born sinful. The Jews did not believe that way and neither did the early Christians. The idea of original sin was introduced much later. You become sinful with the exercise of free will. Jesus came to us to show us how to overcome sin by loving God. The Old Testament tells us to love God, but Jesus explains that love to us and demonstrates how to live in God’s love. We live in God’s love by having God’s love in us.
The next post will address the questions raised and will emphasize that as members of a congregation, we need to work harder to build our own personal relationship with God. That way, we are less likely to abuse our pastors. I am sure one reason they give in to the orthodoxies and the “easier’ way of preaching and teaching is that they tire of being thrown under the bus.