One day, I left church wondering how much I truly had learned from the sermon.1 Don’t get me wrong—the message was carefully constructed and had a sense of direction that made it easy to follow and comprehend. The speaker was passionate and knowledgeable about the topic. Her anecdotes and examples built a strong connection between her story and my lived experience. And theologically sound, it was packed with relevant biblical evidence. Without hesitation, I can say that she intended to feed the souls of her audience. But when I looked back, I still felt my hunger to learn unsatisfied.
Through the years, I have heard many great messages. The methods employed, the tone and posture, and the content all conveyed the speakers’ intent to teach. While the knowledge I gained from them fleetingly stimulated my interest, unfortunately, it produced little learning in me.
My experience is not atypical. I have informally asked several church members to tell me five things they had learned from the last sermon they had heard. Most of them could only recall one or two examples, and usually, what they most remembered was the speaker’s personal story.
While sermons seek to inspire and fortify the soul, they must also edify. Such experiences as the church members' reflect various findings that sermons generate little cognitive development in congregants.2 That is worrisome because Christ calls us to go and teach all nations, and the sermon is one of the main tools that the church employs to fulfill this commission.3 Teaching is an important function of the sermon. Jesus, the Master Teacher, employed it in this capacity. For example, He used His sermon on the mount to instruct people. Author Ellen G. White identified preachers as “teachers of the Bible.”4 Yet, it seems that the sermon has not effectively met this purpose.
The active learner
I have learned from several sermons, but it happened when they were less of a monologue and more of a dialogue. I learn when the speaker interacts with congregants, asking them questions and eliciting responses. Unfortunately, in my experience, few sermons follow such a format. As an educator, I believe it is important to be actively engaged in learning. That occurs when people collaborate with others, discuss ideas, inquire about and discover principles, and solve conundrums.
I have drawn the conclusions I present in this article from a range of learning theories. Their proponents suggest that passive students are less likely to retain knowledge than those actively involved in the process of learning. They are more likely to retain and critically assess what is taught to them than are passive learners. Active learning is critical because it motivates students and improves their communication and relational skills.5
Teachers are increasingly abandoning the schoolmaster approach for approaches that involve students. Also, students are now collaborators in learning. John Dewey beautifully articulates, “Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and [when] the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking . . . learning naturally results.”6
Our classrooms are changing, but are our church sanctuaries?
The sermon as a pedagogical tool
The sermon has been evolving in its presentation methods. Multimedia technology has become a standard feature. In my experience, many ministers mimic TED Talks presenters, employing, for example, open-ended questions, intentional contrasts, and dramatic pauses. Yet, could it be that the more things change, the more they remain the same? In my opinion, this evolution has glamorized but not transformed the sermon. It still has a speaker at a podium providing information to a passive congregation. The irony is that contemporary worship singing has been critiqued for its lack of congregational involvement, but we are unwilling to lay the same charge against the sermon.
A friend once remarked to me, “Carla, you can’t have church without a sermon.” Many cannot conceive of anything else. To me, it seems as if the sermon has become the master over the message rather than a tool for learning. A former teacher of mine often said, “A tool is just a tool. Its purpose is to mediate learning, not govern it.” Jesus employed a variety of instructional approaches with His disciples. Asking and answering questions, He discussed concepts, told parables, healed the sick, engaged in arguments, and preached.
While the sermon was one of the many tools Jesus employed, it was not the one He most frequently used. One of the advantages of such an eclectic approach was that Jesus’ teaching was always contextually relevant—it effectively targeted specific needs. For example, He discussed what it meant to be “born again” with Nicodemus, and because the religious leader could ask questions, it enhanced his understanding of the concept. The parable of the good Samaritan, in which Jesus presented a problem to the religious expert, actively involved him in his learning. Jesus employed drama to convict the accusers of the woman caught in adultery and at the same time to convey His message of mercy to onlookers. His encounter with the woman at the well demonstrates how effective an open and frank interaction could be. Jesus’ pedagogical approach provided His disciples with ample opportunity to observe, inquire, discuss, and minister to others. Christ engaged those He taught, thus creating a learning environment. Since we are called to be imitators of Christ, I believe that this includes how we minister to others.
A possible way forward
Perhaps in reconceptualizing the sermon, we can follow in the footsteps of those universities who recognize that just possessing specialized knowledge is not sufficient to impart it meaningfully. Today, universities have established teaching and learning centers that offer training and support in the art of curriculum design and delivery. As a result, such pedagogical tools as inquiry-based learning, team-based learning, flipped classrooms, problem-based learning, blended learning, collaborative learning, and formative assessment have been successfully applied in large classroom settings with adult learners.7
I offer two recommendations before adopting such approaches, however. First, we need to reexamine how we train prospective ministers. Teaching involves developing expertise in both content knowledge and instructional method. The latter is especially important for equipping educators with the tools necessary for the creation of meaningful learning environments. Teaching tools are complicated, and using them without adequate training can result in ineffective learning environments. If ministers are to motivate members to learn and provide them with the expertise to share it, the ministers must be educated in the art of pedagogy.
Second, ministers must be prepared for the long haul because reconceptualizing the sermon may be a bitter pill for many members to swallow. Change takes time. I interviewed a teacher who successfully practices formative assessment in his classroom. For him, it involved student “buy-in.” To do this, he incrementally implemented the method over time. He noted that the successful adoption of any activity required time. It not only allowed students to understand the nature of the activity but also gave them a period during which they could reorient their thinking to consider and accept change. A long-term implementation plan also provided room for trial and error so that his approach could become relevant. I believe the same principles could be applied when creating active church learning environments. Members will need time to allow new methods to become culturally relevant and acceptable.
With this in mind, I suggest two ways to integrate active learning into the worship service. Do not seek to drastically change the format of the existing worship service but, rather, gently introduce the idea of active learning to church members.
One approach is to pair the lesson study and sermon. First, switch their order: message first, followed by the lesson study. Second, redesign them to have a symbiotic relationship. Let them feed off each other.
Another method is to insert moments of active learning in the sermon, such as asking the congregation to write responses to questions or distributing handouts to fill out. These can be seamlessly integrated into sermons as tools for member participation.
Such approaches can gently invite congregants to participate in their learning process and serve as a bridge to other activities that require greater congregational involvement. More important, they could provide conduits for congregants to access the expert knowledge of a minister while simultaneously fostering an environment for the congregants’ active involvement.
The Master Teacher
I write not as a homiletical expert but from the perspective of church members who love God and hunger for the Sabbath morning corporate worship experience to motivate them to know and love God even more fully and to equip and encourage them to share that knowledge with others. My purpose is not to advocate one particular approach to sermon preparation and delivery. Rather, I argue for modeling ourselves after the Master Teacher, Jesus, and adopting a variety of methods. A cornucopia of pedagogical tools can foster active learning. The more we use, the greater chances we have of meeting the diverse learning needs of the congregation and fulfilling the divine commission.
- Sermon is used in its modern sense usually as a mono-voiced oration presented in a religious assembly. It is mono voiced in that a speaker presents a message without listener input or response.
- S. A. Joseph and T. L. Thompson, “The Effect of Vividness on the Memorability and Persuasiveness of a Sermon: A Test of the Elaboration Likelihood Model,” Journal of Communication and Religion 27, no. 2 (2004); K. I. Pargament and D. V. DeRosa, “What Was That Sermon About? Predicting Memory for Religious Messages From Cognitive Psychology Theory,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (1985), 180–193; D. L. Price, W. R. Terry, and B. C. Johnston, “The Measurement of the Effect of Preaching and Preaching Plus Small Group Dialogue in One Baptist Church,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (1980), 186–197.
- Examples of such tools include sermons, lectures, discussions, videos, books, team-based learning, and tests.
- Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1948), 243.
- Elizabeth F. Barkley, Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass); Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation (Cambridge: MA: Cambridge University Press, 1991); M. Prince, “Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research,” Journal of Engineering Education 93, no. 3 (2004), 223–231; R. Roy, “Active Learning,” Mathematics Teaching 211 (2008), 36.
- John Dewey, Democracy and Education (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1916), 191.
- These learning techniques are defined as follows:
Inquiry-based learning is using a student-centered approach in which they learn through inquiry and exploration.
Team-based learning is “a structured form of small-group learning that emphasizes student preparation out of class and application of knowledge in class,” “Team-Based Learning,” Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching, accessed March 15, 2022, https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/team-based-learning/.
Flipped classroom refers to “a reversal of traditional teaching where students gain first exposure to new material outside of class, usually via reading or lecture videos, and then class time is used to do the harder work of assimilating that knowledge through strategies such as problem-solving, discussion or debates.” "Flipping the Classroom," Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching, accessed March 15, 2022, https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/flipping-the-classroom/.
Problem-based learning occurs when “students engage complex, challenging problems and collaboratively work toward their resolution.” “Problem Based Learning,” Institute for Transforming University Education, accessed March 2, 2022, https://www.itue.udel.edu/pbl.
Blended learning is teaching that includes both face-to-face teaching and online instruction.
Collaborative learning consists of educational experiences in which students work together to construct knowledge.
Formative assessment is an assessment task in which the teacher facilitates students’ successful completion of the task. The teacher judges the quality of the students’ progress, provides them with feedback, and adapts their teaching so as to bridge the gap in the students’ understanding of the task.