After reading Michael Spencer’s book Mere Churchianity I searched his website without success for an exact quote from a commenter, one he had paraphrased in the book. Today I gave it another try, and came across the quote in one of his articles, but still no link to the comment. Here it is:
It’s time for one of your favorite programs here at Internet Monk.com: “Secret, Terrible, Unspoken Thoughts…REVEALED!”
Today’s secret thought was uttered by a commenter in a recent discussion thread, but it’s the kind of terrible thought that lurks in the minds of many of you reading this post. What terrible, shameful, embarrassing secret thought am I referring to?
Frankly, I’m to the point where there isn’t that much a pastor/teacher is going to be able to say that I haven’t heard 100 times already.
I know, I know. Shameful. Can you believe there are people like that out there? Someone call the watchbloggers.
The reason I searched so diligently for the quote is that I thought I might be the commenter in question. Now, if those are the exact words I probably wasn’t, since I don’t use the phrase “pastor/teacher” and I would have spelled out 100. But I have said almost exactly those words, at least to myself, many times in the past few years.
Before I write about what I mean by those words, let’s look at what Spencer thinks they mean:
The commenter is correct, and he isn’t saying “tickle my ears with something new.” He’s saying that the model of Christian spiritual formation now extent in worship is one that sees the 40 minute information dump as the primary means of spiritual growth. The sermon, the sermon and the sermon from the preacher, the theologian and the teacher. Plus a daily quiet time. That’s evangelical spiritual formation in a nutshell.
It’s hit me like a ton of bricks this past year: the blogosphere is full of voices that think we are all a bunch of big brains, and nothing more. We need more information. More data. More sermons. More books. More facts. More lectures. We are what we think. We are what we hear, read and think. So open up those brains and pour it in…after an appropriate prayer.
Well, I don’t disagree with what he writes here, and the imbalance Spencer describes is definitely something to wonder at. But I think I mean something less dramatic.
My question is this: how hard is it to learn not just the basics of Christian doctrine, but most of what is important? Is it really a lifelong endeavor, requiring weekly (or even more frequent) lectures supplemented by lots of independent study?
I began thinking about this when I realized that a sermon was increasingly unlikely to feed my mind. What I was hearing I already knew, sometimes far better than the preacher. But I didn’t chalk this up as a shortcoming of the preacher. In the early years I had been pretty hungry for doctrine and diligent about feeding myself. It didn’t surprise me that I was now hearing things I already knew, that I had heard from the pulpit over and over.
I wasn’t even dismayed in the beginning, because it is perfectly obvious that such a thing must happen. There just isn’t that much doctrine that it can’t be covered in a year or two of sermons and Sunday school. You’ll get through it faster if you add your own study to that. From that point on you’ll be hearing something you already knew.
And there is certainly more to learning than hearing something once. Repeated visits can help you internalize a truth more solidly, or understand it more deeply. That contented me for awhile. Later, when I likely to know as much about it as the preacher, I would occupy myself with judging his presentation of it—not always a spiritually healthy practice!
But mostly I listened in faith that there was some other purpose in hearing a point preached again and again, something beyond edifying my mind. And plenty of spiritual adepts are quick to claim that not all the reasons sitting under preaching can be quantified, that God works through preaching in ways we can’t easily detect.
Once on tape I heard R.C. Sproul begin a sermon by asking his congregation if anyone remembered the point of last week’s sermon. There was a pause, filled by nervous tittering, and then Sproul proceeded to say something like this: That’s fine. It used to bother me that parishioners could rarely remember the content of my sermons from week to week. But then I realized: I’ve done my job, and you’ve done yours. I’ve proclaimed the Word, and you have heard it proclaimed. Whatever happens beyond that is up to God.
Now, I do like the fact that this gets beyond the idea that the preacher and the parishioner are somehow obligated to make something happen during the preaching of the Word, and if it fails to happen then at least one of them has failed somehow: I didn’t preach properly, I didn’t listen properly. But I still wondered: what exactly is this thing that happens beyond the reach of our consciousness? And, more important: does it happen often enough that it merits regularly gathering the many to sit through point after quickly forgotten point, in order that the few might occasionally—what? Have their previously hardened conscience unexpectedly pricked? Suddenly understand something they didn’t get the first forty-seven times they heard it?
I’ve lately come to the conclusion that there really is a point where you’ve heard enough, and going beyond that point is at least optional and sometimes fraught with danger—the danger of thinking that going ever deeper into the Word outweighs the need to live what we’ve already learned. Those who aren’t living what they already know should be wary of thinking that learning more will somehow fix that problem.
My proposal is simple: before starting a sermon, the preacher should quickly state the point he is about to make, then excuse anyone who has heard enough on that point. What would those of us who are excused do instead? Well, I suppose we could discuss some other point of doctrine that interested us more. But I’m more intrigued by the possibility raised by one of the commenters on Spencer’s blog post:
I don’t know who said it first . . . but it could have easily been me, or maybe any of us. I do think that I’ve been at different places at different times in my life. There was a period when I (I now think erroneously) could sit and listen for hours to instruction on techniques of godliness. Then there were long periods of times I sat and longed to hear theology, and Biblical exposition. I expect to be at that place again. There were times I could sit and feel the emotional worship take me to another world.
But for now, I long for a friend. As a middle aged Christian man, I’ve never been lonelier than I am now. Sitting in our Church worship week after week is like handing a man dying of thirst a tall mug of ice cold. . . . sand.
I long to talk to my pastor or any man in my Church with my guard down, talking about how sad I feel about my kids moving off to college, or how disappointed I am with some things in life, or how I still have dreams unrealized. I equally long for one of them to tell me something personal and of substance . . . maybe how they are struggling with an issue or how their marriage isn’t perfect. I’ve done every thing I know to do to create that safe zone where they should feel free to talk. But it is counterintuitive to speak honestly in the context of a Church.
I hate standing in the basement of our church each week for snacks, coffee and “fellowship” while I have to filter every word that I want to say . . . to avoid the “that’s disgusting” look from my fellow-believer, or from my pastor.
I hate to start to talk about the most important thing of my deepest place and watch the pastor look at his watch or sigh in disbelief as if I should beyond that by now.
I think I’d like to spend my time talking to this guy. I know that we could just as well talk about such things outside of church, and some might think it would be more proper to do that. But if we were there together sitting out the sermon, I think we could talk and it would be time well spent.