There has been much discussion about the ways the pandemic lockdown has affected our approach to doing and being church.
We’ve been forced to move our programs online and close any non-essential ministries that can’t be conducted remotely. Like other areas of our lives, we’ve engaged with members of our congregation via Zoom or FaceTime or some other platform. We pivoted quickly and found ways to provide pastoral care, coaching, team leadership and Bible teaching all online or by phone. Sure, we’ve grown heartily sick of looking at faces in boxes on our computer screens, but we did it because we had to.
And yet, while we’ve longed for things to get back to normal, we also keep telling each other that there will be a new normal, that in some ways things will be very different in a post-COVID-19 world.
I’ve been in a number of conversations recently about what things will spring back to normal and what will be irreversibly changed by our experience of quarantine. One of the common responses I’m hearing is that a lot of church people have enjoyed just having a 10-15 minute sermon on Sundays. Their pastors have recognised that it’s challenging to listen to a typical sermon of 20-40 minutes online and they’ve shortened their presentations accordingly. Now some of their parishioners are saying they like it!
Of course, the 10 minute homily is standard fare for Catholic congregations. In fact, one thing Protestants notice when they attend Catholic services is the brevity of the teaching. There are historical and ecclesial reasons for this.
The Catholic homily is only meant to be an application of the readings for the day. The readings for each day are thematically connected, and the church provides a variety of different resources that assist Catholics to delve into those readings. There are also more in-depth study materials available to Catholics in a variety of different formats for in-depth delving into scripture.
But the reasons aren’t simply pedagogical. Whereas everything in a Protestant service builds up to the sermon, in a Catholic Church everything builds up to the Eucharist.
The Mass isn’t ever going to be a place for lengthy, exposition of Scripture.
However, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Protestant church has found itself having to provide all those supporting learning materials online too. And in those churches that have chosen not to livestream services, but meet online via Zoom, there have been times for group discussion and reflection on the talk built into the meeting.
I’m also hearing parents say how delighted they are to see their children actually listening to the sermon because it’s short enough to hold their attention.
For these reasons, the idea of a brief Protestant homily has suddenly not only become possible, but for many churchgoers, a desirable option.
Of course, the current shape of the Protestant sermon has its roots in Reformation ecclesiology and later revivalist traditions. In many evangelical and pentecostal churches it is still seen as the primary tool for Bible teaching, gospeling and motivational proclamation.
Even though they know it is not true, many preachers appear to operate with the unstated fantasy that congregations come to the pulpit with few other options for learning the faith, relying on the preacher to explain the Scriptures to them.
But modern day congregations have access to myriad sources of information about doctrine, biblical interpretation, and plenty of encouragement for their faith from websites, podcasts, books and short courses. As Doug Pagitt says in Preaching Reimagined, this should compel us to reconsider our ideas about preaching. He writes,
“In truth the idea that a person needs to be specifically educated to understand the things of God is little more than Western conceit… There was a time when churches believed that a pastor should be the sole speaker for God because he was among the few who could read, as though the only important knowledge of God is the kind that comes from reading.”
Perhaps COVID-19 will be the unwanted and unpleasant catalyst that will force Protestant churches to reshape our methods of teaching, as well as our liturgies, to align more with what we know about the ways people like to learn. The pandemic might have got us started in providing our churches with more online resources, readings, reflections, and experience-based learning options, as well as coaching and small groups, and that in turn could very well mean the standard Sunday sermon might be reshaped permanently.
I think the homily can only work if the necessary supporting learning materials are made available to congregations, and accessed by them.
But the new normal might involve shorter, sharper sermons, more to the point and more uplifting.
Indeed, the presence of shorter sermons would be more child-friendly and would eliminate the need for separate families services. It might even start getting more families to come back to church.
I know preachers themselves often prefer to preach longer. They’ll point out that Matt Chandler speaks for an hour and everyone loves it. But not everybody can do what Matt Chandler does.
Perhaps the future will be a time when the standard Sunday sermon is 10 minutes long, supported by multiple other learning tools and resources, and every so often we get a guest preacher, or head along to a preaching conference, to hear that rare preacher who can be engaging and interesting in an hour-long talk.