One of the interpretive tools I mentioned elsewhere in this project is pattern analysis. Does what we do fit the pattern the New Testament? If what we might do in a given situation is different from what they did, the question we have to ask is: why? Is it just a cosmetic difference, where we accomplish the same thing in a way that looks different because the culture is different, or perhaps because we use medium that didn’t exist yet?
For example we use microphones and sound systems and obviously Peter or Paul didn’t. Speaking to a crowd with sound amplification isn’t much different than speaking to a crowd without sound amplification. I would say for the most part we are pretty safe but no medium has a completely neutral impact on the message. Even sound amplification puts the speaker in a place of greater influence than everyone else without sound amplification.
If we take a good long look at the events recorded in the New Testament we don’t see anything resembling the typical practice of the modern sermon. It’s important for me to define what I mean by this. I am speaking of an authorized religious leader engaging in monologue with at least a dozen people as central event of a worship service or assembly of those who have committed themselves to follow Jesus. That is the most common pattern we see today, but we have other well accepted situations that are much less common. We might have someone engaging in monologue with a crowd of people that don’t follow Jesus for the purposes of eliciting a commitment to faith in a publicly accessible place.
Jesus spoke to crowds but we have no firm evidence that it was common. The most famous “sermon” in scripture is the “sermon on the mount” which isn’t even called a sermon. Matthew calls it teaching. In this situation we would consider it closer to the evangelistic approach of today than as a part of an assembly or worship service.
Most of Jesus’ teaching occurred in synagogues and public spaces. It is evident from most of these situations that there was dialogue. To be entirely fair the church hasn’t really been established yet. Jesus’ life seemed more dedicated to proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching his disciples.
If we jump forward a few decades to Acts we don’t see any anything resembling a typical sermon either. There are a couple of evangelistic discourses. We have Peter’s message at Pentecost and the stoning of Stephen. Paul on the other hand primarily engaged in debate and dialogue. We have a short presentation of the gospel in Athens.
Had the sermon even been invented yet? It had. It was very popular and used to exhibit great influence in the Greco-Roman world. It is called oratory and the principles that governed the method of this type of speech are called rhetoric. Neither of these words are even found in the New Testament. They are however found in the writings of the early church where a number of church fathers condemned the use of rhetorical flourish.
It seems odd to me that we would base so much in church around practice we don’t see used in scripture.