Linking Lone Voices: Why we have to start integrating pulpit and supper table

Quiz time! Without digging out that old bulletin, what did your pastor preach on last Sunday morning?

Not a clue? You're in good company. You belong to the ninety-and-nine percent of the Coro's sheep who don't remember either.

During my twenty years in the parish ministry that phenomenon has haunted me. There are preachers who are so gifted that the faithful hang onto every word and remember the message throughout the week. I'm not one of those preachers. Very few are. Most of us need some help in reminding the congregation of the good news that we celebrated together on Sunday. Without that, it's in one ear and out the other. And that's not good enough. James tells us that we should not only be hearers of the Word but doers of it as well. But how can we do what we don't even remember?

I've seen a number of discussions about this problem dance around the elders' table. We tried to brainstorm ways of putting into practice what the advertising industry has known for decades: in a society where people are flooded by messages vying for their attention, those that stick are the ones that are carefully coordinated. We need to give the same message on at least three occasions and in three different ways. It takes that kind of synergy to make media-inundated people take notice.

Too many of my sermons illustrate the fact that repeating the same point three times in the same words on the same occasion makes parishioners remember only that they'd like to strangle their pastor with their bare hands. The message needs to be repeated at differ-en£ times and in different forms. This suggests that coordinating communal, family, and individual worship makes a lot of sense. All three of these offer different approaches to God and to God's Word. But because they are not coordinated, we never pay attention long enough to any one thing our Lord has to say to us, to actually go and do what he says.

Some things we tried on various occasions to provide some integration:

  • We regularly encouraged families to do what the Brink family did: make the sermon a topic of discussion around the coffee table.
  • We scheduled a "free-for-all" sermon discussion right after the service.
  • We put questions and points-to-ponder relating to the sermon in the bulletin.
  • We provided ideas for family worship: sermon-related passages, songs to sing, and ideas for collateral reading.
  • We included in the bulletin a brief outline of the sermon and some white space for worshipers to take notes that they could take home and consult later.
  • We provided children's bulletins built around the Scripture theme, together with suggestions for things to do at home.
  • Some small groups focused on a study guide supplied by the pastor, based on the sermon passage of the following week. Participants came to church well-equipped with their own reflections, insights, and questions regarding the passage. That prepared them well for Sunday worship. But alas, the pastor couldn't keep ahead of them for long, so the experiment ended with the small groups scrambling for other kinds of discussion fodder.

These were all useful approaches and enjoyed varying amounts of success. Unfortunately, the idea we got the most excited about never materialized.

That idea was to provide devotionals based on the sermon for every household in the church. Not only could last Sunday's sermon be reinforced in family worship and private devotions, but also the stage could be set (spiritually speaking) for next Sunday's message. In fact, the elders got so warm to this idea that the pastors were instructed to prepare such devotionals that very week.

It never happened. It didn't because . . . well,... we were too busy. It takes a great deal of time and effort to do a decent job of addressing people in worship. Putting out a sermon or two every week is hard enough. Add six or seven devotional pieces, and we're into serious overload.

That's why I'm so excited about this experiment. Here's a way to reinforce the good Sunday Word and stretch its point throughout the week. Coordinating congregational worship and family devotions makes a lot of sense. Schools have known about the benefit of homework for years! Now if we could get them in on this...

Robert De Moor is editor of The Banner. He has also sered as theolgoical editor for RW.