I was less of an ‘outsider’ this week, as I’ve visited Emmanuel a number of times, and know quite a few members of the church. In general I’ve also heard the church spoken about favourably by others around the city.
The first thing I noticed about Emmanuel is how incredibly well organised it was. Everyone, from the parking attendants to the Sunday school workers to the sound engineers were doing their job with a practiced efficiency. The service finished with a heartfelt extemporaneous prayer exactly one hour and ten minutes after it started. The audio-visual were flawlessly executed, the musicians landed their openings perfectly, and the congregation sang enthusiastically and on-key.
The second thing I noticed about Emmanuel was its use of carefully controlled emotionalism. The entire service is engineered to elicit a certain emotional reaction. Writing this a week later I remember far more about the delivery of the sermon than the content. I recall that the subject was Paul’s letter to the Colossians but I remember much more about the preacher’s style.
He told moving stories. He showed us a picture of a truck nearly falling down a canyon. His voice rose and fell, sometimes he was warm, sometimes impassioned. He called us ‘friends’ a lot. He came out from behind the lectern and reached out a hand to the audience, urging us to accept his point.
And, as far as I could tell, the whole congregation was listening with rapt attention.
It’s at times like this that I realise that I don’t really get evangelicalism. Part of my goal during this journey is to understand the church in Barrie, and this requires understanding her practices. Pretty much every church I’ve been to does the following:
- Sing together.
- Drink Coffee.
- Some form of prayer.
- Listen to a sermon.
Sometimes other rituals such as communion or confession are included. Now, to a certain extent I understand the sacrament of communion. My spirit is refreshed and I leave the Eucharist feeling like I’ve encountered some of God’s grace. And I find myself wondering if the sermon is something of an evangelical sacrament. Just as it wouldn’t be a catholic Mass without communion, perhaps it’s not a proper evangelical service without a sermon.
It’s clear to me that the point of a sermon, however, is not education. A university lecture is accompanied by textbooks, tutorial groups, practical sessions and tests, and operates in conjunction with these other teaching tools. Furthermore, it’s structured – you know before you start a course what the curriculum is, what the prerequisites are, and generally you choose your subjects based on your interests or goals.
But I’ve yet to see a church where the sermon curriculum is published so congregants can see which ones they can skip because they’ve already covered the material. Furthermore there’s little allowance made for the self-directed learner, who might want to read the material rather than listen to it, or remedial classes for those that are struggling with the material, or any evaluation mechanism to determine whether students are grasping the topic.
So I’m left with the conclusion that a sermon is about inspiration, not information.
Given the near-ubiquity of this style of doing church, this must be what a large number of people actually want. Maybe for most people listening to this style of motivational, inspirational speaking for 45 minutes every Sunday makes them feel better prepared for their week, more focused, or more connected to God?
I want to understand this dynamic as I try to understand the church in Barrie. So help me out! If you’re a regular churchgoer, tell me why the sermon is an important part of your church experience. Let me know why it appeals to you, and what you feel its benefits are. Is it an essential element of church, or just an important one?
I look forward to hearing your thoughts!