Something that never happened at the church where I grew up has now happened in every single congregation I have attended since:
The pastor preaches, or arranges his/her sermons around, a book or a movie.
Let me explain. At most churches I’ve attended, the pastors teach sermon series: a group of sermons (usually 6 or so) that all address a particular topic or theme over the course of a month or several weeks. But in this case, instead of choosing an original topic or theme from the Bible, the pastor chooses to focus the sermon series around a book (like Francis Chan’s Crazy Love) or around a movie (like, as with one of the churches I attended, Fireproof).
This has some benefits, obviously, or it wouldn’t be happening. For starters, it means that all the church life groups and study groups can be on the same page as the pastor – literally. The entire church, as one unit, can go through a study together – which can make for interesting revelations and activities from group to group, from demographic to demographic. So it’s democratic, in that sense. And the study also often addresses topics or areas that “regular” sermons often don’t. Plus, centering your sermon series around a piece of contemporary media makes the church seem as though it’s keeping up with current times and current Christian thought. It’s a good way of exposing believers to new authors and ideas.
The problems with this approach, though, have left me feeling conflicted about it. For starters: what if people in your congregation have already seen the movie, or read the book? By the time a previous pastor of mine decided to preach a sermon series on Francis Chan’s Crazy Love (a good series, and he was a good pastor), I had already read the book six times. It was all I could do to stay focused on the sermons, or to get something – anything! – new or enriching out of the material. And how do you handle drop-in visitors or non-believers who may have no context for the book, or for what is being taught? If they’re not “following along,” will they be able to make much of the sermon at all, or will it simply serve to leave them feeling alienated and confused?
The second issue is that sometimes, and in some cases (though certainly not all), focusing a sermon series around already-developed material means that the sermons can become a bit…thin. In one church I attended where several sermon series focused around movies, the pastor showed extensive clips of the film, then summarized them briefly and offered a sentence or two of analysis…then showed more film. We spent more time watching film clips than learning! And in cases where the book/film’s lesson is blatantly obvious (as with Fireproof) lessons from the sermon can feel redundant or even unnecessary. I can say as a professor that it’s a dangerous game to extrapolate lessons from materials that aren’t necessarily intended to be teaching items, and it can lead to long summaries, shallow thinking, and repetitive conclusions.
It’s not that I think this should never be done; I just think it’s challenging to do well. It’s not something I saw happening much several decades ago, and the fact that it’s more frequent now makes me wonder if it’s part and parcel of the “small group” attitude that has gripped so many churches: the idea that “real growth” occurs in cells and that the Sunday morning gathering is simply a place to dwell on and further address previously-learned truths. The “real” work is happening while you “do life together” with other people on weeknights, while Sunday services become a sort of weekly summary and endnote.
But to me the most frustrating aspect of this trend – and what I think is at the heart of my issue with it – is that I really struggle when book and movie interpretations comprise the bulk of what could otherwise be focused on…you know, the actual Scriptures. There’s nothing wrong with bringing in thinkers or writers or artists to supplement a sermon (I love it!), but I find that focusing on a book or a movie as “proxy Scripture” – as a way of easily digesting pre-chewed spiritual insights without having to do much work on our own – can do damage to our ability to study and learn and grow. In the church we’re already facing a loss of Biblical literacy – I suspect more Christians than you’d think would have a hard time parsing out what Jesus actually taught versus what they’ve absorbed from other sources – and I worry that we’re walking into the dangerous habit of assuming that reading/watching something “Christian” is the same thing as learning what is actually in the Bible, or dwelling on Christ’s teachings, or developing our own critical thinking abilities.
I’m fortunate that, at my current church, these sorts of sermon series are few and far between. Because of that, I don’t mind them. But if it turned out that this was a regular occurrence, I think I would struggle. And them more I see it popping up in the churches I attend, sometimes as a monthly occurrence, the more I hope it’s a trend that fades fast.