why the sermon is not enough

If you’ve spent much time in church, you may have noticed that more seats are filled on Christmas and Easter than on an average Sunday. Many of us may have grown up as church “CEO's” - Christmas and Easter Only attendees – sharing in the mindset that by attending on these dates we had fulfilled our religious duty for the year. If you think about it, that's a little like a college student who shows up only for midterms and finals thinking he’ll be able to pull off a passing grade.

But even faithful attendees of weekly worship can overestimate what our attendance is accomplishing, particularly if our weekly investment in learning Scripture begins and ends with listening to a sermon. In doing so, we're a bit like a college student who comes to lecture every week but does nothing outside of class to reinforce what he learns.  Neglecting the syllabus, this student just shows up each week, listens to the lecture, and goes home. No matter how good the lectures are, his grasp of the subject will only go so far.

going deeper than the sermon

It occurs to me that the children of God have been given a syllabus: love God’s law, meditate on it day and night, hide it in your heart, reap the profitability of all of it. Yet many of us are content to just show up each week for lecture. We might do a Bible reading plan or a devotional time during the week, but do we make an earnest study of the syllabus material?

What if we became more like the college student who comes to the lecture, but also takes time to dig deeper?  Who broadens his understanding of the lecture by personal study time and dialogue with other students?

Because the sermon is not enough to teach us the knowledge of Scripture.

It is not even necessarily intended to do so. Before you begin to imagine this is a critique of the pulpit, understand that your pastor wants and expects you to learn elsewhere. More than likely, he constructs his sermon based on the premise that you are acquiring basic Bible knowledge in a home group, Sunday school class or Bible study. This gives his sermon the freedom to exhort, to encourage, to apply. It allows him to preach topical sermons that move from passage to passage to integrate a broad concept, building on a foundation of basic Bible knowledge he assumes you have acquired elsewhere.

Or perhaps your pastor makes no such assumption, choosing expository preaching over topical preaching to help build that foundational knowledge.  But even this excellent approach is often limited by calendar pressures. In most churches the typical sermon series fills about ten weeks at most, depending on the ebb and flow of the church calendar. This means most pastors won’t preach through an entire book of the Bible from start to finish unless that book is fairly short.  Most of them are not.

what good preaching does

As someone who sits under extremely good preaching each week, I have noticed a pattern: Good preaching creates a hunger for deeper learning - it awakens our desire to know more of this God we hear proclaimed. Rather than “refilling our spiritual tanks” once a week, good preaching drives us to hunger for more truth than we had when we walked in the church doors. It whets our appetite for deeper study.

When will you learn Ezekiel beyond an annual read-through in a reading plan? When will you mine Genesis chapter by chapter for all its richness? Seeking out learning environments in addition to the sermon allows us to do just that. My hunger from the weekend sermon finds me halfway through a 22-week study of the book of Exodus with a group of women. We could spend three times that long unearthing all the treasures this book contains, but by the time our study is done, we will remember the story of the Exodus each time redemption is preached from the pulpit. We will be able to fill in the historical and theological context for any mention of Moses in a sermon. We will understand law and grace in a fuller way. We will remember how the ministry of Christ was shadowed clearly and repeatedly in the pages of Exodus, 1500 years before his advent. The time we invest in learning Exodus from start to finish will enhance and amplify our ability to be nourished by the sermon.

Bible study and preaching should hold hands. Individually, they are each beneficial, but together their benefit magnifies. What about you? Will you fill yourself with sermon after sermon and call it done? Or will you allow the sermon to whet your appetite for deeper study, seeking out places for that to happen? Were you a mediocre student in school?  You can be a faithful one now. Begin by acknowledging that the sermon is not enough. Then find a class, a group, a study partner, a study guide to take you where the sermon is exhorting you to go – deeper, and deeper still.

Deeper, deeper, blessèd Holy Spirit, Take me deeper still,
Till my life is wholly lost in Jesus, And His perfect will.
O deeper yet, I pray, And higher every day,
And wiser, blessèd Lord, In Thy precious, holy Word

– Hymn by Charles P. Jones, 1900

...or any of the studies linked on my blog