The Perfect Church, Part 1: the Sermon

I keep getting a lot of hits on my posting in which I asked: Why Should I Go to Church? In the comment section, I promised to write a multi-part essay on my idea of the perfect church. So, here goes.

Let’s start with the sermon (part 1). What constitutes the perfect sermon for me? 

Glorifies God

I’d leave the sermon with my mind fixed on God. Somehow the preacher would so lift the Trinity up, I would find myself in awe of God in some new way. How often do we leave church this way? How often is God so extolled that we leave church with our minds in heaven, so to speak?

A wife of a pastor friend of mine once said that the best sermons start with everyone holding a pencil, but end with everyone listening intently, pencils down. They start with information and end by grabbing the listener’s heart. This particular pastor has for years ended every sermon by focusing on the gospel. How can you not think about Jesus when you’ve just heard once more the great love which drove Him to suffer and die for you?

In my opinion, a sermon reveals God’s glory most when it presents an orthodox view of God. Many trends in evangelicalism are subtly leading away from such a view, but that discussion is for another blog. Suffice it to say, I prefer sermons that reveal a God who is sovereign, omniscient, omnipotent, immutable, both fully just and fully loving (the definition of love); a God who became human, understands my life, suffered out of love for me and submission to the Godhead, credited his perfect record of obedience to me, and died as a substitutionary sacrifice in my place.

Convicts with Grace

But I’d also leave with some conviction of sin. It for sure wouldn’t be that ugly shamed feeling, but that dual sense of the utter awareness of the terrible treason of a particular sin — at the same time a feeling of liberation, freedom, newness. 

Such conviction is like a knife through the heart. Clean. Quick. Immediate results. Human-induced shame and guilt hang around forever. They become self-centered puddles of self-loathing that achieve nothing.

At one of the churches we recently attended, I thought, “Hm, this pastor is pretty good.” Then he said, “When you get to heaven and God shows you the plan for your life, how would you feel if — by your lack of love — you missed that plan.”

WHAT??

I jabbed my husband in the ribs as if to say: This ain’t the church for me. That’s what I mean by a sermon that shames you, one that makes you worry about missing out.

I personally believe that when Ephesians 2:10 says “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do,” He is promising that I will do those good works! What a promise! And Philippians 3:13  says: “for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.”

Sermons that level guilt-trips at us are simply not a part of the gospel which says:

Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Hebrews 10:22

The conviction that comes from grace preached is something entirely different. I call a counselor friend of mine the “velvet hammer.” After spending time with him, I feel both convicted and loved.  Jesus was the same way.  And so are good sermons.

Does a Few More Things

Finally, the perfect sermon (for me) has a few more features. In good sermons, the preacher:

  • is teaching himself as he teaches me. The sermon is fresh. The preacher is real, humble. There’s no sense that I’m being talked down to
  • shows enough intelligence that I’m not embarrassed to bring unbelieving friends to the service
  • is balanced the way I think Jesus would be: not committed to either the left nor the right, but to the truth (which typically offends both)
  • goes below the surface. By this I mean that the sermon isn’t a bunch of To Dos, but shows a deep understanding of why we Don’t. The preacher recognizes that beneath some of our most “righteous” works — and certainly under our obvious sins — lurks a deeply invested sin machine. The sermon echos the truth that in many cases we can’t simply decide To Do the right thing, but that our unconscious sinful commitments (the flesh’s idolatries) must be revealed and addressed, a job which takes time and the miraculous intervention of the Holy Spirit
  • has a high view of Scripture (believes it’s inspired by God) and either preaches straight from the Bible or using principles from the Bible

Oh, Lord: I know I ask for a lot. And I’m willing to take less in a sermon. Please lead our family to the church You have in mind, no matter how perfect… or not. Amen

Stay tuned: The Perfect Church, Part 2: Community

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3 thoughts on “The Perfect Church, Part 1: the Sermon

  1. Popping in, as requested:

    I think this post does an excellent job on laying out what you require in a preacher and their sermon, so good job. You’re probably going to have a hard time finding all of these attributes on a weekly basis, but I can’t see the harm in looking.

    With that said I do have one exhortation, be aware that you’re looking for a preacher that falls into the same narrow niche of theology that you do. So in a lot of ways you’re not looking for someone to stretch and challenge you intellectually but solely challenge on you on living according to the theology you currently have.

    That’s not my preference, but it’s not wrong either. I’d just encourage you to add to the list ‘a preacher who’s just a little out of synch with me’. I’m personally rather liberal for a conservative and I’ve found that having a preacher that is just a touch of out step with me works well for keeping me constantly challenging my own beliefs and how my faith interacts with my life.

    Earl

    Longing: Just an FYI to all readers. I am not looking for this “perfect” sermon, community, or church in general. I’m just saying that if I could hear the perfect sermon, it would have these features.

  2. I’m enjoying the series. It reveals much about your heart. When you’re done I think I may write my own series on this topic of the church.
    BTW..I’ve decided to up my word count from 350 to 500 and see what that feels like. Andree Seu (my favorite author) seems to have a 600 word limit in her World Magazine articles…
    May God grant you the desire of your heart and lead you to a place that will “slake your thirst” for a healthy church in your area.

    Longing: please do note that I did not manage to keep this post short at all! I thought of cutting it into two parts, but it all seemed a piece.

  3. Wow! Makes me appreciate the good pastors I’ve had. Neither were super orators, but they made the points you’ve mentioned and often got me teary in gratitude and awe.

    I don’t think the sermon is the most important attribute in a church. Like you, I’m willing to take less. But a bad sermon has turned me away when I’m “church shopping”. Just last week a pastor lost me by using the term “tree hugger”. I was sitting up front and when he said some self-reflective comment about being “political” I told him right then and there that he “lost me at tree-hugger”.

    BTW, I think I’ve found my new church. I may hold off sending the transfer letter until I’ve read your series. So keep writing!

    Longing: A pastor friend once told me that he thought the sermon was the #1 teaching tool of the church. Having been taught mostly through Sunday schools and parachurch ministires myself, it was a thought-provoking comment. I am still thinking about it.

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