How is it church without sermons?

A line of pews in an empty church

On my social media channels recently, I posted Skye Jethani’s great article questioning whether a Sunday service revolving around a sermon is really the best model for church today. I also mentioned it in my last post about us leaving “real church”. The two combined made a good friend of mine ask, “How is it church without sermons?

That is such a good question, and it that made me realize that I had completely lost perspective on what a “mind-blowing paradigm shift” (her words) it is to separate church from the sermon.

The answer is simple, but working through it reshaped my thinking in a major way.

The function of church

Let’s start with the question of why church exists in the first place.

Church exists to help people grow into spiritual maturity, as measured against Jesus himself:

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for ministry, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God, growing into maturity with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness.
– Ephesians 4:11-13

It also exists because we need each other:

And let us consider how we may stir up one another to love and good works, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
– Hebrews 10:24–25

Spiritual growth and encouragement — those are the dual functions of church.

The form of church

So if we wanted a church that maximized peoples’ spiritual growth and their opportunities for encouragement, what would that look like?

In the earliest days of the church, it looked like this:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer. Every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
– Acts 2:42,47

The apostles’ teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer — those were the four things that comprised church for the earliest followers of Jesus. And they were committed to those things; they weren’t just an add-on to their lives.

It’s easy to see how these four things accomplished the function of the church. Should it be different for us 2,000 years later? Should our focus be different in some way? I’m open to arguments, but I haven’t seen, read, or experienced anything that indicates to me that maybe we should rethink them.

If that’s true — if we should still be devoted to the same four things — then the question becomes how should we do them. Acts 2:44–47 tells us how the first church did it:

All the believers were together and held all things in common. They sold their possessions and belongings and distributed the proceeds to all, as any had need. Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple, and broke bread from house to house. They ate their food with joyful and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.

The temple was a convenient place to meet because there were areas large enough to hold them all as they listened to the apostles teach. Then they could break off into smaller groups to eat and pray together. When someone had a need, someone would sell something they owned to meet that need.

What would that look like today?

When we think of church today, most of us think about the Sunday event. That’s what church is to us. Church wasn’t an event for the first Jesus followers, though. It was their life. Going to the temple to hear the apostles teach wasn’t church. Eating and praying together wasn’t church. Meeting each other’s needs wasn’t church. Church was all those things collectively.

Last month I wrote:

I’ve struggled with this for years and have started wondering over the past few months if the biggest problem might be the way we do church. Virtually all churches use some form of the sermon-centric, Sunday event model — a model from a different time that today tends to result in clubs, not teams. I started 2022 believing that we could be a church that succeeded in our mission where many others were not. Now I’m wondering if that’s actually possible without doing church in a fundamentally different way.

So we’re stepping away from traditional church for now to see if there’s a better way. Plenty of people are already doing something different, in lots of different ways. Maybe there’s a better way for us, or maybe there’s not. There’s only one way to find out.

A month ago, I strongly suspected that it would take a radical departure from what we’ve come to think of as “church” for a church today to carry out its mission well. Now I think I was wrong.

Let’s assume that a healthy form of church emphasizes the same four elements that we see in Acts 2:42. If that’s true, then what would it take for a typical Sunday-event, sermon-centric church to become one where all four elements were important? I was thinking you couldn’t do it — that the two were just too far apart. But in reality, couldn’t you fairly easily shift emphases so that all four elements became important? That could be done in any number of ways, but it doesn’t have to be radically different, right?

How is it church without sermons?” There actually are sermons in these alternate models of church — or at least teaching of some kind. It’s just that they’re one part of a greater whole, not the centerpiece that they’ve evolved into.

And now I see that it’s a lot easier to get there than I thought.

Photo by Nikko Tan

Filed under Spirituality