As I listened to speaker after speaker my sense of frustration and defeat grew. Oh, I appreciated their enthusiasm. I was impressed by their courage. Several had never spoken in public before. Others had to make their presentation in a language which was not their mother tongue. One man was almost illiterate. Yes, I admired their desire to share their insights and their willingness to risk looking foolish. Yet every single one of them, whether they were new converts or had been in the Lord for decades, whether they had spoken in public for years or this was their first time, regardless of their education or lack of it, all of them without exception, followed the same tired, worn-out formula in their talks. The reason for my discouragement was that this was a graphic demonstration of my shortcomings as a teacher.
The exercise was a relatively simple one. As a condition for being allowed to attend a seminar I taught, each of the participants had to present a five-minute Communion talk during the last session. During the seminar I stressed the importance of remembering the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. I pointed out that focusing more attention on the Communion or Last Supper has the potential of revitalizing every thing else we do in our assemblies. I also told them about my own experience that giving various men in the congregation an opportunity to speak about the Communion fosters spiritual growth and is a good way to give them experience in speaking to others about Christ. I not only told them about the benefits, I showed them how to prepare a Communion meditation. Then, I assigned each person a section from the book of Ephesians. I asked them to imagine that someone else was going to give an expository sermon from that passage – their job was to prepare a Communion meditation which would complement or harmonize, but not interfere with or rehash the sermon.
Things didn’t work out as anticipated. Instead of writing a meditation on the same theme as the assigned text, each person began his talk by reading the Ephesians passage followed by the words, “May God bless the reading of His word!” Then he proceeded to give a talk which, more likely than not, was more a mini sermon rather than something designed to draw our attention to the death, burial and resurrection of Christ.
Now, I have to take responsibility for part of what happened. Afterwards I realized that I had never explicitly told the men that during their talks they were not to use or refer to the Ephesians passage I assigned them. To me it was simply obvious, both from the example meditation we had written together during class and from the hand-outs I provided. What was perfectly obvious and clear to me didn’t even register in their thinking.
But I was not the only one at fault. I had offered assistance to anyone who had questions or needed help preparing their talk. Nobody took me up on it. When everyone finished giving their talks, I asked how many had read the instructions I had given them. No one had. I asked how many had read the Communion-meditation examples I had given them. Again, nobody had. They were so sure that they knew what a message was supposed to be like that it apparently never occurred to them that it could be otherwise or that they needed to look at the instructions for the talk they were assigned.
What astonished me, aside from the fact nobody bothered to read the directions, was that everyone, without exception settled on the same formula. These guys came from several different congregations. They came from a wide geographic area. Some of them were new to the faith. Yet each presentation followed the exact same pattern. Amazing! And scary. Is it possible for a particular practice or piece of church culture to be so deeply ingrained that even newcomers automatically default to it? Apparently so.
In my postmortem analysis it occurred to me that there was also another factor at work. In this particular church environment topical sermons are the order of the day. It’s all they know. Expository sermons are virtually unknown. I’ve tried to introduce the concept of expository speaking more than once. So far, they just don’t get it. They may catch a glimmer that, in theory, it is possible to structure a message around the natural flow of a passage of Scripture but, in practice, it doesn’t happen. With maybe one or two exceptions I think the idea goes right over their heads. For whatever reason, they can’t grasp the concept. Or, they don’t see the value of it.
So, here I was asking them to imagine that someone was going to present an expository sermon. It was their job to create a Communion talk which would go along with the theme of the sermon. But if they didn’t even get the concept of expository speaking, how in the world could they understand the assignment? I was asking too much. I was trying to build a structure on top of a non-existent foundation.
It shouldn’t surprise me that not everyone is always ready or capable of understanding or accepting everything I’d like to teach them. Jesus often faced the same kind of frustration. For example, He told the disciples, “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear.” (John 16:12 NIV) There were some concepts the Apostles didn’t get until long after the day of Pentecost.
However, there’s something else which scares me a little. Are there things I’m unable to bear right now? Are there concepts that go right over my head because I don’t have the background or foundation to understand? I can shake my head over the rut the seminar participants fell into, but what ruts am I stuck in? I know congregations right here that are every bit as ritualistic or formulaic in their Communion practices as the people in the seminar. I’ve heard plenty of topical sermons right here based on the formula of proposition and three points.
The experience was a needed reminder to take nothing for granted; to not get too comfortable in our practices. We need to continually re-examine what we do, why we do it and how it lines up with Scripture. Do we act from principle reasoned from Scripture, or are we doing things merely because we’ve always done them that way?