At a social event last weekend, I ran into C., a woman I used to know when our kids were young. C. and her family were long-time, active members of a well-known megachurch in our area. Her nest had been empty for a couple of years now. C. and her husband were in the midst of relocating from this area to more temperate climes, delayed only by the sale of a home that has languished on the market for many months.
I asked C. if she was still attending the megachurch, and told me she and her husband had quietly drifted away a while ago, more or less around the same time their youngest headed to college. When I queried her about her connection with the church where her family spent the last couple of decades, she shrugged and said, “We’d pretty much heard everything they had to say. We just quietly stopped attending services.” Certainly a part of this disconnecting may have been the nature of transition. C. recognized she didn’t have the energy to serve a church community that would no longer be her home. She’d already started the emotional process of transplanting to her new community.
But there was something else in her words that struck a chord in me. I’ve logged a lot of seat time over the last four decades listening to sermons in a variety of different churches. I’ve heard a few remarkable, totally life-changing messages through the years, but most of the time, the messages blur together, forming an indistinguishable heap of to-do’s that I can not possibly remember. So little of it lands in my long-term memory. Only a small percentage of it lodges in my soul, dislodging sin in me and provoking behavior change because I’m loving God more fully. I’ve heard all sorts of instruction over the years (like this, this or this) from Sunday morning sermon-givers who tell me how to “get more out of it” with tips that sound suspiciously like the Building Good Study Habits unit I had in 7th grade.
I do some speaking myself, and am not an anti-sermonite. (Jesus gave sermons. Can’t escape the fact that this is one way in which he taught his followers.) I’d even consider myself a member of the pro-homily tribe, especially if the messages are shorter in duration than the average 40 or 50-minute sermons in most of the Evangelical congregations of which I’ve been a part.
A sermon generally develops some definite theme; a homily explains or comments on a passage of Scripture. The sermon usually deals with a doctrinal or moral subject, and is more likely to contain a structural form of introduction, body and conclusion such as textbooks of rhetoric advocate. The homily is more likely to lack structural form, and move or even digress wherever the text leads the preacher. Generally, its purpose is to explain the literal meaning of the Scriptural passage, point out moral or ascetical applications, and perhaps develop accommodated or allegorical meanings. From http://conversiaddominum.blogspot.com/2006/07/sermon-or-homily.html
While others have debated the relative inefficiency of auditory learning and church-as-lecture-hall ecclesiology, I heard in C.’s words last weekend a sentiment I’ve heard from many others in my demographic. Those of us who’ve logged years listening to sermons may hit a point where they feel as though they’ve heard the same thing over and over again.
Because we have.
Though I “get more out of” sung worship and taking communion during a corporate worship service (both call for a different sort of engagement from me than listening does), a sermon or homily is still a core component of gathering in community. Even if we try to psych ourselves into weekly focus on extracting the marrow out of each week’s message with prayer, preparation, mental Q and A as the message is being given, note-taking (like school!), and more prayer, the reality is that even the most dedicated church service attenders may be tempted toward that kind of burn-out on sermons C. expressed. In churches where the sermon is the centerpiece of the corporate worship experience, you either soldier on or you hit the eject button.
Or what? A growing number of us downshift involvement or disengage entirely from the church at midlife. If we want to hear a sermon, we can download a podcast or listen online to the teacher/preacher of our choosing. And we can listen while we’re driving to work or cooking dinner. (I suspect some who do this may retain more of what they’re hearing than when they sit in a pew or padded stacking chair in church on Sunday morning.) However, those of us who continue to maintain involvement in a local church and find ourselves in the “pretty much heard everything they had to say” camp when it comes to sermons need to figure out what goes after that elipsis.
If it seems to you that you’ve already heard last Sunday morning’s sermon content three previous times in your life, what do you do with those feelings? With whom does the issue reside? Is it a problem or is sermon fatigue part of the cost you must pay of being a part of a church?
I’ve written about midlife and the church in this space (Click here, here and here) as well as for Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics blog (Click here and scroll down to the “Online Articles” section).