Man, did I bomb, I thought as I descended the steps and made my way to the front row of pews in the small church I was pastoring. I was six months in, preaching every week for the first time in my life, and I was discouraged. I just didn’t seem to be preaching the way I imagined I would be at this point—a wise storytelling expositor with a flare for a youthful gravitas. I wasn’t very good, at least not this particular week.
I mostly kept my thoughts to myself as I made my way through the rest of the day. I had new sermons to prepare for the following weeks and didn’t have much time to reflect on my failures.
On Tuesday, I had lunch with a long-time member, and we discussed the life of our church. He was a church veteran, and I was just one more in a long line of pastors he’d served under. He’d likely heard hundreds of messages like Sunday’s. So when he leaned in and whispered some encouragement, I was surprised.
“I’ve really been thinking about your sermon from Sunday. It’s making me rethink some issues in my life.”
I was floored, actually. My halting, stumbling exposition caused this godly disciple to rethink issues in his life? How was that possible?
I’ve come to learn, in the years since, that it’s because spiritual insight and change don’t come through a powerful sermon.
Yes, you read that right. We don’t grow because we were inspired by one amazing church service or because of the way a song struck our hearts on a particular week or from one riveting prayer meeting.
I was six months in, preaching every week for the first time in my life, and I was discouraged.
We change, I’m learning, not by a sermon, but a lifetime of sermons. Not by one partaking of the Lord’s Supper, but a lifetime of partaking of the body and blood of Jesus. Not by one “killer” worship service, but by a lifetime of mostly forgettable ones.
I think about my own heart’s formation. I can remember a few key sermons and powerful worship experiences that could be described as pivotal. But mostly, God has changed my heart through a lifetime of attending church, singing hymns, and participating in sacred rituals like the Lord’s Supper, reciting the creeds, and reading Scripture.
When I was a kid, my parents made me go to church—three times a week. We dressed up in our finest for each service. Since the age of 5, I was made to sit and listen to preaching, made to stand and sing all four verses of hymns. Made to memorize verses in Awana clubs and Sunday school and my private Christian school. At the time, I wasn’t usually in tune with what these rhythms were doing to me. I did them because this was the environment I was raised in.
Today I look back at all that with profound gratitude. My parents loved me enough to give me the discipline of sacred ritual. Week after week, the story of the gospel was poured into my heart in ways that, the psalmist tells us, are hidden in such a way as to keep us from sin (Psalm 119:11).
Week after week, the story of the gospel was poured into my heart in ways that, the psalmist tells us, are hidden in such a way as to keep us from sin.
As an adult, it has been this embedded gospel treasure that has, at times, rescued me from despair or kept me from sin. A few years ago, I encountered a stunning betrayal by a close group of friends. I nearly quit the ministry. But it was the words of those sacred hymns that washed over my soul in my moment of need. Words I’d mouthed as an indifferent kid standing erect in church for fear of being rebuked by my father.
In his book on spiritual habits, You Are What You Love, James K. A. Smith says repetition is the key to spiritual formation:
There is no formation without repetition. Virtue formation takes practice, and there is no practice that isn’t repetitive. We willingly embrace repetition as a good in all kinds of other sectors of our life—to hone our golf swing, our piano prowess, and our mathematical abilities, for example. If the sovereign Lord has created us as creatures of habit, why should we think repetition is inimical to our spiritual growth?
If only we could understand this as adults. This reality—that God changes us slowly over time—revolutionized the way I approach my teaching. I realized that change would happen in the people I serve, not because I give that one killer sermon, but because I faithfully deliver God’s Word week after week. Some sermons will be remembered. Most will be forgotten. But if my sermons are grounded in the gospel, then they will not be lost in the heart. They will stick. And God will use them to form His people.
It’s the same way with our liturgy. Too often we plan our services as if every Sunday has to be a revival or camp meeting or conference. We have to amp our people up to get them excited. But when we take this approach, we’re doing them a disservice. We are asking our weekly gatherings to deliver something they can’t. And we are forming our people for the spectacular rather than inviting them into the mundane, yet beautiful, rhythms of life in Christ.
After all, the spectacular already happened in Jesus. Our worship is merely a creative retelling of and participation in this story—our story, threaded throughout 2,000 years of church history.
I have found when I lessen my expectations for “getting something out of” church that I get more out of church. I’ve found—through hearing the lyrics of beautiful hymns, reading of God’s Word, and listening to sermons—that I love Sundays more. Jesus comes alive, the same old story growing richer and sweeter with time.