Some time ago, Leander Keck, who later became the dean of the Yale Divinity School, charged that many of our pastors have allowed "sundry matters to displace Sunday matters." Watching many of us pastors at work, the laity might conclude that we are more heavily invested in any other pastoral duty than the one the laity consistently rate as the most important - preaching and leadership of worship. In a church in which one of the authors formerly served as pastor, the Pastor-Staff Relations Committee was asked to help their new pastor decide which pastoral duties were most important for the life of that congregation. The pastor listed each of his pastoral activities on a notecard, everything from visiting the sick to composing each week's worship bulletin. Then the pastor shuffled the cards and gave them to the committee, asking the committee to sort them according to their priority for this congregation. When he returned to the room, he was surprised that they listed preaching as the most important activity, followed by visitation of seriously ill members, the planning and leadership of worship, visitation of prospective members, and so on. The pastor was surprised, since that congregation had experienced a steady decline in membership over the past decade. He thought that visitation of prospective members might be at the top of their list.
"If you preach sermons that really relate to people's lives, if the Sunday service is exciting and important, we win bring the new members here," said one of the laypersons.
This response has been confirmed by observation of growing congregations across the country. Last year, when Bishop Richard B. Wilke convened the pastors of a variety of growing churches, they agreed that, among all the factors contributing to the growth or decline of a church, preaching and Sunday morning worship are primary.
When a family moves to a new town and begins to look for a church, their first encounter with a church will, in the great majority of cases, be the Sunday morning worship service. If they like what they see and hear, if something seems to be happening there, they may return next week to visit the church school or other smaller group. Their pattern of encounter with the church has biblical and historical precedent. Church or Sunday schools, small support groups, gymnasiums, publishing houses, even the clergy themselves, all are secondary inventions of the church. All are subsequent developments to the primary and basic experience of Christians coming together to worship God. A church or a pastor who allows other matters to crowd out Sunday matters is in grave danger of losing the main mark and the primary reason for the existence of the church. If it doesn't happen here, on Sunday, for the church, it doesn't happen anywhere.
There is cause for concern because the data on Sunday morning worship signal that we have reached a crisis in the participation of our people in the main gathering and sending event of the church. With 9,266,853 members in 1984, the average worship attendance was 3,549,347 persons. In other words, when the church gathers for worship, the average attendance is equal to only 38 percent of our members. Perhaps more disturbing is the overall trend in attendance. In the past fourteen years, our average worship attendance has decreased 11 percent. In sheer numbers, 442,530 fewer persons were present for Sunday morning worship in United Methodist Churches in 1984 than in 1971.
The numbers would be disturbing for any church, but they are particularly disheartening for United Methodists. We heirs of Wesley have not been known for the depth of our theology. We are a church that was born amid Wesley's quest for an experiential faith, the religion of the warm heart. In small prayer groups, in singing the rousing hymns of the Wesleys, in frontier revivals, Methodists and EUBs experienced the Wesleyan truth that religion, while not only of the heart, is primarily an encounter, an experience of the risen Christ within our gatherings for worship. When United Methodists lose the Sunday service as the main focus of our life together, we have lost the very source of our life; we have become severed from the wellspring of our distinctive witness.
The Wesleyan revival was, in part, a liturgical revival. It wedded many of the services and forms of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer with a straightforward, enthusiastic call to new life in Christ within the Body of Christ. Wesley frequently wrote about the centrality of the sacraments for sustaining the Christian life. Charles Wesley transformed the worship of the church universal through thousands of his hymns. John Wesley stressed the centrality of preaching, urging his traveling preachers to study and to inculcate not only the Bible, but also his sermons. Without a vital sacramental life, without inspiring, singable, lively hymns and engaging, biblical, and applicable sermons, United Methodists have very little left on Sunday except to become victims of dry, tedious, petty moralism or to be enlisted in the latest crusades of the political left or right. Alas, in many of our congregations, this is the present state of affairs.
Earlier it was noted that there is a great need in our time for Christian formation, the careful, long-term, intentional formation of Christians who are able to articulate and to live their faith in daily life. "To spread scriptural holiness throughout the land" was the way the early American Methodists expressed it. In every region of United Methodism, laity, time and again, assert that they want a pastor who is a "spiritual leader." While many may disagree about the specific qualities present in such a leader, there is agreement that this person should be someone who is concerned about sacred things, able to talk about the experience of the holy, someone who personally knows God and is able to be helpful to others in their spiritual journey. The laity seem to have learned, perhaps before some of our pastors, that the living of the Christian life is too difficult without spiritual formation.
Spiritual formation occurs in many ways in the congregation's life together, but in no more important way, to no larger numbers of the congregation, than on Sunday morning. Here is where the average member is confronted by the claims of the gospel. Here is where the story of Christ and his church is told, reiterated, and internalized. It is little wonder then that, every time during the church's history when questions of Christian identity were raised, reformers eventually had to become reformers of worship. Sunday morning - at the Lord's table, at the baptismal font, and at the pulpit - is the primary place where Christians have always discovered and recovered who they are and whose they are.
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Sunday Morning Problems
When consideration is given to the ways of revitalizing the Sunday morning service, the contemporary heirs of John Wesley are faced with some very real problems, one of which is preaching. One central activity of the early Methodist revival was preaching, as evidenced by the thousands of sermons Wesley preached. It is still primary in the contemporary church. The current Discipline lists twelve tasks of the minister. The first is, "To preach the Word, read and teach the Scriptures, and engage the people in study and witness" (par. 439. 1).
Wesley published his sermons to provide doctrinal guidance to his followers, issuing four volumes in a fourteen-year period. Today, preaching and the content of sermons continues to involve questions about orthodox doctrine, biblical interpretation, ethical issues, and the whole complex of factors that make up vital Christian proclamation. Whenever the church debates the qualities of "good preaching," there will be disagreements about what constitutes "good sermons." But there should be no disagreement that preaching is a primary activity of our pastors.
Too many United Methodist laity express bafflement that their pastors allow almost any other pastoral activity to distract their attention from the task of preparing and delivering sermons. At best, laity will sometimes comment, "Well, our pastor isn't much of a preacher, but he is a very loving pastor" - a dubious compliment. Imagine someone saying, "She is a wonderful physician; she just can't stand to be around people," or "He is a great mechanic; he just refuses to get his hands dirty fixing a car." At other times, laity will express their displeasure with the current state of preaching through outright criticisms, saying that sermons are dull and boring; sermons are read as if they were academic lectures, rather than Christian proclamation; sermons are political or psychological, rather than biblical; or preachers are obviously unprepared or obviously ill at ease while preaching. Some laity presume that their preacher has spent most of his or her week preparing for the sermon and are thus particularly confused when the pastor is so embarrassingly unprepared to lead in the main public activity of the clergy.
We believe that the problem with preaching is not primarily a lack of sincerity or commitment on the part of the preachers. There are significant structural and institutional reasons why "sundry matters have displaced Sunday matters" in our church. For one thing, there are few "rewards" for good preaching. In many denominations, a pastor is selected by a congregation only after an interview and a trial sermon or after some committee - very often called the pulpit committee - in the congregation has had the opportunity to listen to and to evaluate that pastor's preaching in his or her present church. But our pastors are evaluated and appointed by other clergy who probably have never heard them preach. A district superintendent may go on hearsay, perhaps conducting an informal poll of a few Pastor-Parish Relations Committee members, asking them, "How do you like George as a preacher?" But there is generally no systematic attempt on the part of the bishop or district superintendent to learn how well a pastor is invested in his or her preaching. Unless laity complain, and do so vehemently, it is assumed that the individual's preaching is satisfactory.
A person who is newly ordained quickly learns that advancement in the United Methodist system is not predicated upon good preaching. He or she can look around at the persons who are in prestigious churches in the conference or persons who are serving on conference boards and agencies and quickly surmise that they are appointed or elected for reasons other than their ability to preach. Too often, when our bishops preach, they do not provide good models for the rest of the clergy. Their preaching preparation has fallen victim to the excessive demands of administration, attendance at national meetings, and other bureaucratic responsibilities. A seminary professor once told his class to be sure to hear the newly elected bishop preach in the chapel one morning, commenting, "He hasn't been a bishop long enough to have lost his ability to preach." If the bishop does not have time to prepare for preaching, why should a local church pastor be expected to prepare?
Good preaching takes time, talent, and a lifetime of work. Though our laity may say that they want good preaching, they may have little idea of how much time, energy, and commitment good preaching takes. The preparation of sermons is a lonely, private enterprise. No one sees the hours a pastor may devote to a twenty-minute sermon. No wonder then that many pastors devote themselves to more visible activities - visiting at the hospital, administering the church, working with the youth. Some sermons are well prepared and thoughtfully delivered, yet, fail to "work" for some reason. The Word is proclaimed not only by the preacher's hard work, but also by the power of the Holy Spirit, which empowers both the sermon and the ability of the congregation to hear. Because good preaching is so difficult to achieve and to predict, many of our clergy are tempted toward more predictable, more achievable, more measurable pastoral activities.
Certainly, great preaching is an art, a matter of talent as well as hard work. But good preaching is not some mystical gift. Preaching is ultimately a skill that can be learned like any other skill. Some clergy may already have gifts and graces that equip them to be good preachers. Others may have to substitute hard work and disciplined training for their lack of talent. But preaching can be improved if we think that it is important to have good preaching and if we give our pastors the tools and the time they need to preach. Laity need to be told what it takes for a preacher to preach well - time for quiet meditation and study, an ongoing program of continuing education, periodic opportunities for rest and spiritual renewal. We believe that the laity will be willing to provide the resources and the support their pastors need to develop their preaching skills, for our laity are the strongest advocates of the need for pastors who are spiritual guides and good preachers - if they can be shown that their resources and support are used to good advantage.
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Sunday Morning Possibilities
Fortunately, United Methodism can benefit from the current revival of interest in Christian preaching and the current renewal of Christian worship. Across all denominational lines, many Christian congregations are rediscovering the joy of vibrant, biblically based worship. The Roman Catholic Church, which once downplayed preaching, has rediscovered the balance of Word and Table, which we Protestants (in theory at least) stressed. We Protestants, after decades of neglect of the sacraments (a particularly strange state of affairs for United Methodists, considering Wesley's own views of the centrality of the sacraments) are learning again the power of the historic symbols and dramatic actions in Christian worship.
But we cannot benefit from these movements unless United Methodists recover the centrality of Sunday in the life of our congregations. Those who appoint our clergy, our bishops, and our district superintendents must themselves be models of commitment to vibrant preaching and worship, and they must find ways to evaluate the Sunday morning leadership of the clergy under their care. No business would think of hiring someone to manage some aspect of their business without first inquiring into that person's possession of the necessary skills to do the job; yet, we do it all the time!
Few laity would understand, nor should they, how someone who has not had to study and practice preaching and worship can be appointed to serve a church. For all practical purposes, we require a seminary education for our clergy; yet, some seminaries still do not have full-time professors of Christian worship. It is still possible to be ordained in some annual conferences without having either adequate training or demonstrated ability in preaching. Preaching and worship leadership are primary skills for our clergy and are skills that can be learned. If someone, for some physical or emotional reason, does not have the ability to learn these skills, that person should be counseled to seek some means of service in the church other than the parish ministry. The Sunday worship of the congregation is simply too important to allow anyone, for whatever reason, to disrupt or to deny our people the weekly privilege of hearing and enacting God's presence in Word and sacrament.
It is encouraging to see the development of new, biblically based, ecumenically received, historically and theologically sound worship services for use in our church, now found in The Book of Services and (in Spanish) Cultus Principales.1 Still, an embarrassingly large number of our congregations have never even seen the "new" services of the Lord's Supper (1972) and Christian baptism (1979), mainly because their pastors have not taken the time and the initiative to introduce these new resources. A great step toward revitalized, engaging, full services on Sunday morning would be for pastors to devote their efforts to introducing these services to their congregations.
A warning about this matter of liturgical innovation must be given. One reason the Wesleys encountered a lethargic Church of England, in which great numbers of the English people had withdrawn from Sunday services and in which the sacraments were infrequently celebrated, was that, two centuries before the Wesleys, liturgical change had been shoved down the throats of the English people by royal edict. The people did what they have always done when they have been the victims of thoughtless, high-handed, and poorly interpreted changes in worship - they simply withdrew from Sunday worship. When a new hymnal, a new order of worship, or a new style of preaching is introduced into a congregation, it must be done with the utmost patience, interpretation, and most important of all, lay consultation and leadership, knowing that worship is the central activity of the church. If our new Book of Hymns is poorly introduced into the local church, United Methodists could lose our single, central instrument of liturgical unity, and the results will have devastating consequences. Our people often become angry and resentful when their pastors force them into areas of innovation without first carefully preparing them for the innovation and soliciting their reaction. United Methodism has wisely been rather congregationalist in its approach to worship. Worship orders and forms are carefully devised for our congregations, and our pastors and congregations are encouraged to use these services. But use of our services is still a matter of local option - and should always remain a local option - dependent on the pastor and the congregation's own adaptation of the services and assessment of their congregational situation. The congregation, including its socioeconomic situation, its accustomed style and its composition, is an important factor to consider in ordering our worship. This applies not only to the introduction of new services, but also to the retention of old ones.
For every congregation that is fearful of liturgical innovation, more congregations are probably bored with their present orders of worship. These congregations are worshiping the way they do on Sunday morning, not because it is a valued part of their life together, but simply because this is the way their current pastor has decreed that they will worship. More than likely, the current pastor is merely doing what he or she has done at the last five charges he or she has served, rather than really taking the congregation's needs, their reactions to the present style of worship, or our denomination's new worship service options into account. If every pastor would dare to ask the laity what they think about his or her preaching and about the current order, style, and content of public worship in the church, that would be a
marvelous (though possibly painful for the pastor) way to begin to recover the centrality and vitality of Sunday morning.
The first Discipline published in America set standards that are valid today. In answer to the question, "What is the duty of a preacher?" the first listed was, "To preach."2 The directions for public worship were:
Let the morning-service consist of singing, prayer, the reading of a chapter out of the Old Testament, and another out of the New, and preaching....
A peculiar blessing accompanies the public reading as well as preaching the word of God to attentive, believing souls. And in these days of infidelity, nothing should be omitted, which may lead the people to the love of the holy bible.3
- The Book of Services (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1985).
- Frederick A. Norwood, ed. Doctrines and Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America, facsimile edition (Rutland, Vt.: Academy Books, 1979), p. 58.
- Ibid., pp. 120-21.
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