Does broadcast or participation matter more in the life of faith?
Do Minutes Matter?
One of the areas of vast difference for preachers is the length of their sermons. While there is a lot of variety in local pulpits, most of the largest pulpits in non-denominational and evangelical traditions have preachers who go on for 40 minutes or more. While this is common in BIPOC church traditions, I’m struck by the differences between mainline (my own tradition) and evangelical ones on the length of the sermon.
Does it matter? It might. One of my church members (who came from an evangelical tradition with longer sermons) framed the importance of longer messaging in this way:
Everyone has exposure to ads and messages that are not from the Gospel assaulting your senses for minutes or hours each day. Why shouldn’t we be filling the airwaves with Gospel messages that give life to balance out those that don’t?
My church member suggested considering the differences between mega-church and mainline worship services to see if sermon length has an impact. Let’s do that now.
Mainline v. Megachurch Minutes
Let’s compare a local megachurch service with my local mainline church, comparing both the length of the sermon and the frequency of attendance.
I’m located in the Pacific Northwest, where according to Pew Research’s Religious Landscape study, church attendance is about 50% one-to-two times a month and 50% weekly.
The megachurch average congregant receives the following minutes of broadcast content in a month, divided by attendance:
- Sermon each Sunday: 40 minutes
- Midweek podcast/teaching: 20 minutes.
- TOTAL amount of broadcast content for a four-week month: 240 minutes (weekly attendance), 120 minutes (biweekly)
Mainline church average congregant:
- Sermon each Sunday: 20 minutes
- Midweek podcast/teaching: None.
- TOTAL amount of broadcast content for a month: 80 minutes (weekly attendance), 40 minutes (biweekly)
That’s a vast difference! But what does it mean?
The “Air War”
Disgraced former Pacific Northwest pastor Mark Driscoll used to call this disparity the “air war” where the church needed to fill more of the week with their own messaging so that their members and listeners do not fill their heads with the wrong type of content–which, to him, came from other churches (like mine), but we can be charitable and say secular messaging.
Whatever you think of that framework, the comparison in the section above shows the strategy is effective in comparison. The typical megachurch offers three times more exposure to their broadcasts of theology and guidance. And the disparity can be vast: a weekly megachurcher receives twelve (12!) times the amount of religious guidance of a once-a-month mainliner.
Woof. I can see the appeal to longer broadcasted sermons: the numbers show that it wins the “air war” for sure.
Is the Broadcast the most important?
That said, worship is not just broadcasting of theology and guidance: it also includes other elements with different purposes, chosen by the worship leadership. While evangelical megachurches may fill the worship service with sermon, prayer, and music, more liturgical mainline churches fill their time with other touchstones of the faith, and that difference is stark as well.
Let’s compare these two local services again but look beyond the sermon. The typical 70-minute megachurch experience can be timed out to:
- 40 minutes of sermon (including scripture usually read during the sermon)
- 20 minutes of contemporary praise music (all written after 2000)
- 10 minutes of prayer by the worship leader and the benediction
A liturgical 70-minute mainline worship (using my local church as an example) is usually:
- 20 minutes of sermon
- 5 minutes of introducing and reading Scripture
- 5 minutes of Prayers of the People
- 10 minutes of hymns (all written between 1400 and 2001)
- 5 minutes special music (choral and soloist)
- 15 minutes for weekly Holy Communion liturgy and service
- 5 minutes passing of the peace & announcements
- 5 minutes of liturgy (call to worship, opening prayer, liturgical responses, sending forth liturgy, often from scripture)
So in the 70 minutes of worship, put into the typology of United Methodism, the mainline congregation gets at least:
- 20 minutes of Reason: Sermon placing the Gospel in a logical, persuasive construct that draws from the other sources, of course.
- 30 minutes of participating in Tradition: Hymns, Special Music, and Communion liturgies reflecting ancient beliefs.
- 10 minutes of engaging Scripture: Introduction, Readings, and liturgy that draws mostly from Scripture.
- 10 minutes of active Experience: reflecting on our salvation through prayers and each other, and sharing ways how they can work out that salvation through the announced opportunities.
All in all, a liturgical mainline worship service reflects well the four sources of authority in the United Methodist Tradition: Scripture, Reason, Tradition, and Experience. A sermon in an evangelical megachurch may include all four of those elements, but the 30 minutes of prayer and contemporary music contribute to an experience of worship but don’t often delve deeply into the other sources of authority.
Quantity or Quality…
It may seem like I’m making a “quantity or quality” argument—the megachurch may have more quantity of broadcast content, but the liturgical mainline service has more quality of content through deeper exposure to traditional liturgies and practices. Perhaps.
But in my mind, the purpose of worship is not just shaping our minds and praising God through Jesus Christ. It is to participate in the practices of the faith: the words and hymns of the ancestors, the sacraments of baptism and eucharist (and others). These traditions matter and keep us grounded in deeper ways than focusing solely on common experiences. This is the ground(ing) game, not the air war.
So I’m back to conversation with my church member: does the air war matter more than being grounded in tradition? Does more broadcast content compensate for less liturgical and traditional grounding?
The comparison may already be a lost cause. We know psychologically that corporate worship ecstasy can be “sticky” and persuasive to people moreso than participating in ancient liturgies. So while there are pockets of resurgence of participation in traditional liturgy in various traditions, psychologically speaking, it might be a losing effort.
Grounding game is about participation in ancient forms of Christianity, whereas the air war is about crowding out the broadcasts of contemporary sins. You would think they would work together–and in the best churches, they do–but there’s something about the “air war” churches that is problematic, and I think I know what.
The argument I’m making isn’t about quantity or quality, but about the problem of a single voice being dominant in a worship service.
The “air war” minutes give a single voice ubiquity in a worship service, more than half a typical service. Given the source of the “air war” language as a hugely problematic pastor, and the multiplicity of allegations of impropriety or abuse against megachurch pastors, the problem might be that we are giving up too much of worship to one person preaching rather than a multitude (or centuries) of voices in liturgy and variety of worship music. That sort of monoculture and singularity of thought is dangerous in large quantities and over long periods of time, as we saw with Driscoll himself, and problematic in non-denominational churches without robust accountability structures.
While mainliners have their own problems, there isn’t the same uniformity of voice in worship given so much of it is given over to ancient liturgies and hymns that were written before the culture wars. Mainliners also often have far more accountability checks and balances in their bureaucratic traditions, although abuses and violations remain, there’s at least methods to hold people accountable.
By the numbers, mainline worship may be less broadcast-savvy than megachurch worship that offers more guidance to their people. But mainline worship is far less risky and more accountable, less prone to single voices leading people astray, and more likely to lead members to think for themselves about faith and life. I know I’d rather be shaped by a mainline “Jack/Jill of all trades” than a megachurch “Master of One”. But I think it comes down to preference and what environment you want your family to grow in the faith in.
Talk back in the comments!
What does your worship service look like? Take a look at the worship services that you craft or attend. Try to categorize out the elements like the above treatment.
- How much time does the church spend on broadcast messaging?
- How much on sharing and shaping experience?
- How much time attending to the traditional practices of the faith?
- Even if you aren’t United Methodist, about how much of your service is primarily about Scripture, Reason, Tradition, or Experience? Here’s an article explaining them if you need it!
Post in the comments below!
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