Why sermons are like nitrogen


Why sermons are like nitrogen


There are some who believe that we should figure out and replicate the New Testament model as if there is a divine model for doing church. I’m not one of those people. I think the church should hold to central core values and principles but be flexible in various areas so it is relevant in its context. However that doesn’t mean that the apostles don’t have anything to tell us about how we do church today.

These days I find lots of people saying that one way of “doing” church is just as valid as another. You can be a house church or a mega church, do whatever works. Much of evangelicalism and in particular the church pragmatists have become ecclesial relativists.

Unlike some house church advocates I’m not a New Testament purist. There are a great many things about the New Testament church that we can discard. We don’t all need widows lists, men can have long hair and women don’t need to wear hats. However there are some central themes that we can’t discard. I’m afraid that we have neglected them.

One huge theme is Paul’s metaphor of the body. Based on 1Cor 12-3 the church should function as a body. Each individual:

a) is given equal concern and indispensable
b) is empowered by the Spirit through a varied impartation of gifts
c) is functioning as a minister to others
d) sincerely loves others

I’m not proof texting as this concept of church is found through out the New Testament across more than one author. If we sat down with this concept of church and thought through how we might facilitate this in our day would we come up with what we have today?

The standard evangelical approach to church gatherings is to emphasize biblical teaching or among the more charismatic the balance has swung to “worship”. Unfortunately these things are over emphasized to the detriment other essential elements. Lots of teaching without real fellowship or a shared mission is like a car with lots of gas but no spark plugs.

The point I try to make about sermons is that they are like nitrogen in lawn fertilizer. I might broaden “sermon” to involve any kind of proclamation to a group of people but you probably get my point. Nitrogen is an essential element in fertilizer but if you use too much in the wrong proportions it will kill your lawn. I’m no more opposed to sermons in church than I am to nitrogen in fertilizer.

The church today is like a homeowner with a bunch of dead grass that keeps pouring nitrogen on it expecting it to grow. We keep filling peoples minds with knowledge assuming that growth will come but we see just the opposite.

Maybe, just maybe we need to back off on some of central assumptions on things and rethink our strategy. You can’t make a lawn grow just like you can’t make people grow. But there are sure fire ways you can kill the process. I don’t think it is wise to rest content with the lack of visible life transformation in the church because growth is God’s job. If most of the church is dead it probably isn’t because God isn’t doing his part. We have to consider that we may just be aborting the growth process.

  1. #1 by Darryl on August 8, 2007 - 4:56 am

    Very good post, LT.

  2. #2 by Rob Kroeker on August 8, 2007 - 11:08 am

    Well okay – anything done in excess is going to kill the entire “lawn”. I’m not sure if I agree with all your assumptions about regular church though – I look at Waldheim MB as a prime example of how a big, traditional church, through slow relevant change, can affect a large number of people both in the macro and the micro elements (through genuine small groups and large gatherings) in a positive way. Does this mean they get everyone? no – does this mean they are the most effective in reaching out to this current generation in our current cultural and economic context? not necessarily – but as far as “big” church working – they do a good job and accomplish many of the same things that any NT gathering did.

    However, they have their weaknesses too. But, they’re working on it, even though they are bound by their history and membership (lowest common denominator wins out – aka worship wars which end up with some type of compromise that not many people completely like).

    Just a few thoughts – I like the nitrogen analogy though =)

  3. #3 by Anonymous on August 9, 2007 - 6:52 pm

    Rob:

    Well okay – anything done in excess is going to kill the entire “lawn”. I’m not sure if I agree with all your assumptions about regular church though

    I thought I made a strong biblical case. The nature of church is like a body. If church is a body it cannot function with one person doing most of the ministry most of the time.

    I can’t say one thing or another about what happened at any particular church. That really isn’t the point, nor is it relevant when it comes to the theology of the church. Nor is it relevant when talking about the church as a whole.

    Shouldn’t our ultimate authority on church be scripture and not the anecdotal success stories of individual churches?

    If our approach to church runs contrary to universal biblical principles and the average church is stagnant perhaps these two things are connected.

  4. #4 by Rob Kroeker on August 10, 2007 - 6:22 am

    Yes, running contrary to bibilical principles will always get you in trouble, but what I’m saying is that running contrary to 1st century Roman Empire culture is sometimes a good thing. Now, the pendelum is shifting and our “traditional” 20th century church is usually not keeping up. My point is that I’ve seen by example that if a traditional church slowly embraces change where it makes it more relevant to the culture around it, those who have put their heart and soul into growing their traditional church from scratch, are able to come along for the ride.

    But alas, usually the only practical solution is to start a new, relevant church (or church plant) that appeals to the culture of the day. In our context, usually people are desiring a strong sense of authentic community because that is one of the big things lacking in our world today. But to say that the “one person” centered model with preaching as it’s focal point is like too much nitrogen on dead lawn ignores the role not just of a preacher, but as a church planter as well. Paul, when first starting a church, obviously took on most of the responsibility spiritually, and everything virtually revolved around his leadership. And in this context, Paul was preaching sermons (albeit, sermons that were often more like debates, but declaring the Name of the Lord nonetheless). There is something that happens in the spiritual realm when the word of God is proclaimed, and I don’t like it being tied in with “too much nitrogen”.

    But, I agree with you in that even in the NT times, a mature healthy church must reflect the body of Christ in a way that is NOT preacher centered – and in the long run, centering a church around one person (aka some famous person in the evangelical church who has his sermons broadcast on the radio, etc) is not biblical, not as successful, and in our culture – not relevant.

  5. #5 by LT on August 10, 2007 - 8:27 am

    Yes, running contrary to bibilical principles will always get you in trouble, but what I’m saying is that running contrary to 1st century Roman Empire culture is sometimes a good thing.

    You are making a huge assumption that the form of church was chosen to be relevant to a specific culture. Seeing as how the church was persecuted now and again I can’t see how they would have striven to become more Roman “seeker sensitive.” You could have argued that having church in a home was pragmatic decision to avoid persecution but that isn’t consistent with history, as people “broke bread” in homes from the very beginning, nor did they change formats in times without persecution.

    But to say that the “one person” centered model with preaching as it’s focal point is like too much nitrogen on dead lawn ignores the role not just of a preacher, but as a church planter as well.

    I can’t see how an analogy that says proclamation to a group of people is an essential part of the mix ignores the role of the preacher. The crux of my point is that if you have a church where most of the ministry is dominated by one person and one type of ministry you are ignoring, or at least short shifting other essential elements of church ministry.

    The fertilizer analogy is just as applicable when considering other elements of church life. All small groups and no real teaching would be just as detrimental.

  6. #6 by Rob Kroeker on August 10, 2007 - 8:59 am

    “You are making a huge assumption that the form of church was chosen to be relevant to a specific culture”

    Good point – I agree that these early church members did not actively choose to meet in their homes because that would make it most comfortable with those who were used to going to temples or synagogues. They were probably just natural places to gather, and the gatherings became more focussed on Jesus. This resonates well with me in my current ideas of authentic church experience (around the table drinking coffee and coming to God) – but, what judgement are we making on the church from 300ad to present? How many gatherings were done in the home in those 1700 years? Look at mennonite history, or any other group, they worked hard just to put together a place where they could come and worship together in peace. They gave more money and time than I probably ever will just to have a special set-apart peice of land and building that was purely dedicated to God. How can I come down hard on these people? How can I say that because they didn’t do things the way they were done in the 1st century, that they missed a key biblical principle? In the case of Mennonites, I’ve come to realize that there definitely is a place for authentic community and hospitality and breaking of bread together. They have traditionally modelled the “body” well – they just have done it differently.

    Menno’s in waldheim were farmers. Everyone really knew everyone, and it was almost that they knew each other too well. They didn’t need a once a wekk small group meeting because they saw and worked with each other for 40+years side by side. People’s characther became well known. There is a strong sense of community, especially among the older ones, in Waldheim.

    However, now we have post-christian family’s moving into Waldheim. We live in a culture where people don’t really know their neighbours, and there is a desire for authentic community because they don’t have authentic community, nor did they grow up with it. IN the first century, being a Christian was belonging to a new community. A community was made where one previously didn’t exist (with the exception of Jewish culture, where they had to essentially leave a large part of their culture just to follow Jesus).

    I guess I just don’t see the early church model as being the only, theologically supported model for the gathering of believers. I see it as culturally relevant, and in some ways very similar to our current culture. But, if our culture changed, I’d change the way we gather too – even if it meant we didn’t meet in “house churches” anymore.

  7. #7 by LT on August 10, 2007 - 10:04 am

    Rob:

    I guess I just don’t see the early church model as being the only, theologically supported model for the gathering of believers.

    I should point you back to the first paragraph of my post.

    “There are some who believe that we should figure out and replicate the New Testament model as if there is a divine model for doing church. I’m not one of those people. I think the church should hold to central core values and principles but be flexible in various areas so it is relevant in its context. However that doesn’t mean that the apostles don’t have anything to tell us about how we do church today.”

    I’m not trying to argue in favour of any particular model. In the last little while I’m looking for non-negotiables in Christian theology of the church. What are the central themes applicable in every context? I think proclamation of the gospel is a huge theme in scripture and I’ve concluded that it is non-negotiable. Proclamation doesn’t have to be insensitive but it is unapologetic. That means it doesn’t fit in post-modern culture and it may appear culturally irrelevant but anything less than proclomation of Christ crucified empties the message of its power. We cannot compromise on this because if we do we are converting people to a world view, a community, a promise of benefit, anything but Christ. I think this is the #1 reason why the church is so dead. We convert people to the church culture more than to Jesus.

    At this point my strongest new conclusion in my recent study has nothing to do with small meetings of believers in homes or cafes or pubs or wherever. The most powerful ministry in church is not in small groups or large groups but from one person to another. People who actually know each other, love one another, affirm one another and reach out to others.

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