The filibuster sermon

Andrew Carnegie, one of the wealthiest men of his time, was a philanthropist, endowing libraries and other organizations. One time, he bought literally thousands of organs for churches. He said it was to “lessen the pain of listening only to sermons.” Somepreach-the-gospeltimes, when I’m guest speaking in a church I’ll look around and say, “I noticed that you don’t have an organ here. Too bad for you!”

Speaking of “sermons” – a term I’ve never really liked, and only use it here because it’s the most common term among the church-going crowd for what pastors do on Sundays – I admit that I’ve given way too many of them. Not only have I erred in the number of said sermons, I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve often failed in the matter of their individual length. Solomon said, “Too much talk leads to sin.” I’ve never figured out if that’s the sin of the preacher or the preached-to. During the interminable sermon, the preached-to sin by their exasperation and the preacher by the imprudence of droning on.

I’m certainly not saying that Bible teaching is unimportant. The truths of the Bible and those elucidated by gifted teachers have literally saved my life. I’m an ardent, almost obsessed student of the Scriptures, and an avid patron of good teaching. But, what I’m not such a fan of is the “Filibuster Sermon.”

“Filibuster” – funny word huh? You’ve probably heard it on the news as people are debating its use in the Senate. For my money the debate is overdue. In essence, you use the filibuster when you want to delay a vote on something. It’s where you talk so much that nobody else can get a word in edgewise. In politics it has been known as the maneuver of choice to “talk a bill to death.”

The word refers to a prolonged speech that obstructs progress in a legislative assembly. “Obstructs progress” – not exactly one of our objectives in church! According to the Oxford Dictionary the word came from the 18th century and was first applied to pirates who pillaged the Spanish colonies. Again – “pirates and pillaging” – not things for which we want to be known!

In church, we preachers practice the filibuster at “sermon” time where nobody talks but us. There’s no vote at the end, no discussion, no contribution from the congregation. We’re obviously the expert “Sermonaters,” who are paid to tell people what to think about God. Right?

Right. Wait. What?

The preacher’s job is to teach us how to think not what to think. Parrots are content to sit on a perch in their cage and repeat only what someone tells them. They like the security and predictability of being programmed by their owner. They’re domesticated and instead of hunting for their own food, they’re happy to eat from a pan of picked over seeds. Harsh, I know. But as a long-time teacher/preacher myself I don’t think we’ve done a very good job of making disciples by doing all the talking in our times of gathering.

Like students who don’t want to write the papers and take the tests, many Christians “audit” their Christian lives by going to an “auditorium” and employing only their “auditory” capability.

So, what’s the alternative to the “filibuster sermon”? Well, we could act a little more like a house church where everyone who wants to could contribute to the conversation about Scripture. The preacher could do a little less talking and invite more interaction during the sermon. Typically the only contribution that people are allowed to make is in “passing the peace” and passing the offering plate! It’s no real mystery that since we’re not encouraged to be vocal when we gather that we Christians are not more vocal when we scatter.

I think our Sunday worship experience should look more like a “practice” than a performance. Football teams practice during the week and then play the game on Sunday. Comparing this to our Sunday worship experience versus the rest of the week – which one is the game and which is the practice for the game? If we make the Sunday service the game, then it’s my observation that people will eventually stoop to the conclusion that showing up on Sundays is all that God requires of them. They will assume that by the end of the service that they’re done with their service for the week! The game has been played, and they can rest from spiritual responsibility until they come back next Sunday! They learned about God with a snappy sermon and worshipped him with groovy music ­– “see you next week for the next performance of the Jesus Show!”

If our gatherings are practices, then I propose that they should probably look more like them. We should be studying the playbook, interacting, praying, and strategizing with each other when we get together. There’s no way that the coach (pastor) should be doing all the talking and having all the fun in our practices! Everyone has to get in on the action on Sundays so we’re ready to face the other team during the week! When we leave the service the service really begins. We’ve gathered to get ready for the big game so that when we scatter we can play the game – and win!

So what about the “sermon”? Though I’m a major purveyor of sermons I think they should look a little like a combination of chalk-talks and running plays on the practice field.

“Yeah, but what about the not-yet-christians there that day?”

I think it makes the interactions a bit livelier! One time I did an interactive teaching in our church about sharing our faith and concluded with asking everyone to role-play an evangelistic conversation with someone. I suggested that we break into pairs with someone being the witness and the other the witnessee. About fifteen minutes later one of our members approached me with a teenage girl in tow.

James said, “Barney, this is Tina. She’s our church babysitter. There were no babies in the service today so she just hung out and listened to the message. We did the role play like you asked and she decided to become a Christian!” Not exactly what I expected but better!

“OK, but how about the congregants who don’t like to talk, but came to church for a more anonymous worship experience?”

Well, while I do offer an out for those people, I gently encourage them to give it a try. If they don’t come back, well, there are lots of others churches in town who will accommodate their preference. But honestly, I think this is one of the problems with the Western Church. We’ve blindly followed our culture and accommodated ourselves to excessive individualism. It seems to me that our influence is as paltry as it is because we condescend to the preferences of churchgoers. I figure if we can’t interact about our faith in the safety of a church gathering, there’s little hope we’ll have the courage to do it out in the big, bad world!

“But I go to a huge church where it would be impractical for the pastor to invite interaction with him during his preaching.”

There are more ways than one to engender interaction in church gatherings. The way I’ve done it in larger groups is to ask people to interact with each other. I might do some teaching, ask them to share their thoughts with someone sitting near them, go on to teach some more, and then ask them to spend some time praying over the application of it with those around them. It’s sort of like turning the large group into a bunch of small groups.

“Isn’t the preacher trained and gifted to teach the Bible, to say nothing of the time s/he has during the week to study and prepare?”

That’s absolutely true, and I don’t advocate tossing out the proverbial baby along with the water in which he’s been bathed. I’m one of those trained and called people with time on my hands to study the Word and share it. Yes, let the preachers preach and the teachers teach; but maybe with a little less sermonizing and a bit more inviting people into the conversation. Maybe we could replace some of the one-sided filibuster sermons and give more space for the gift of collective revelation among the sons and daughters of the same Father, saved by the same Son, and indwelt by the same Spirit.

OK, I’ve been filibustering. What are your thoughts?

If you are in partial agreement with me on this you might want to pass this on to your pastor – anonymously of course. Pastors love anonymous suggestions!

Another post you might like:  My Ministry Mantras Part 1

6 Replies to “The filibuster sermon”

  1. Love it! I strongly believe in what your saying here. It is amazing to me how our services have the same format and formula anywhere in the western church, and this without a scripture stating that this is how our gatherings should be done. I do not get it. I have brought up the idea at different fellowships I have been a part of and I am looked at like I am speaking gibberish. To be fait, it is much easier for me to suggest it and not be the one to implement the idea. However I do also communicate that I would be glad to be one of the facilitators in the gathering. I believe that until we, followers of Jesus, formulate the thoughts and state what we believe about His truth, we do not know what we actually believe. I think it actually may be the practice of saying what we believe out loud that the Holy Spirit those beliefs from our head to our hearts and we develop conviction.


  2. Amen. Amen. Amen. The absolute best mid week Bible study I wer attended was one in which we all shared our thoughts on the sermon given the previous Sunday. My faith and curiosity grew leaps and bounds. I am weary with the programmed church “service” and find myself increasingly avoiding them. Let’s wake up! And strengthen the things that remain.


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