Sermons in Community

One of the ideas from the book Total Church (see my review here) that I have been thinking about recently is the assertion that sermons should not be prepared in isolation but in community. Also with their emphasis on house churches, they also caution against the “sermon” being the only model for Bible teaching – the word must be studied, discussed and applied in community.

Many churches have two models for Bible teaching. First is the sermon, prepared in isolation, preached as monologue, and rarely even discussed afterwards. Second is the weekly “Bible study” in which a passage is read and questions have asked. This model can so easily degenerate into a kind of pooled ignorance, where everyone throws in whatever thoughts they have, often without any real understanding of what the passage in question means.

Personally, I enjoy studying by myself, locked away in a room with books. And even in the context of small groups I prefer there to be more teaching and less discussion, to avoid wasted time on red herrings. But Total Church did challenge me to rethink a bit.

My initial idea was that exegesis is done by the individual and hermeneutics by the community. To properly understand a text we must understand its context, pay careful attention to the meaning of words and the flow of argument. To do justice to a belief in the unity of Scripture, we must also ensure that we do not interpret a passage in a way that is contradicted by other Biblical passages. All of this requires a commitment to serious study of the Bible. Simply turning up at small group and asking, “what do you think verse four means?” will not likely achieve a deep understanding. So exegesis needs to be done in advance of the teaching session.

Having thought further, even exegesis should be understood as a community project. My use of commentaries is an admission that I need help from others to properly understand a text and see all of its implications. The model suggested in Total Church is of a group of Bible teachers getting together to prepare for what they will teach to their own small groups. This of course requires coordination of what will be taught, but I am sure the resulting sermons or Bible studies will be much richer as a result. It also would serve as a mentoring and training process for new preachers and teachers.

Hermeneutics also belongs in community. I might give some effort to thinking about how my message can apply to students, parents, housewives, lawyers, asylum seekers, retired people, etc, but actually this may be better worked out in discussion, as I simply don’t know enough about the particulars of other people’s contexts. For example, I recently taught in my cell group on the Parable of the Good Samaritan. I had done some background work on the principles taught in the passage, but when it came to how we could practically help the needy, I felt my inadequacy to speak to this subject and threw it open for suggestions.

So I think it is possible, without throwing away the sermon, or serious preparation, for us to involve community in every part of the Bible teaching process.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *