The Lens: Episode 1 (CERC Sermons)
Posted on 12 Mar 2022 by CERC News
Jan Tie: Hello everyone! I’m Jan Tie. And welcome to the Lens where we take an informed look at CERC matters. Today we will be turning the lens onto sermons in CERC. Joining me are Pr Robin Gan, the elder of CERC, council members Mark Leong and Joel Lee. Together with them we also have Pastor-in-training Jerome Leng and CERC’s general manager, Penny Lai. Hi everyone! Thank you for joining me.
So, CERC sermons. They are certainly one of a kind here in Malaysia. We’re talking about 1 to 4 hour long sermons and recently, especially during the pandemic when everything was virtual, sermons would sometimes cross over the morning service to the evening service, amounting up to 6 to 8 hours long. Robin, perhaps you could share with us what your philosophy on preaching is. Why do you preach the way you preach?
Robin: Well, it’s hopefully not just my philosophy but a biblical principle and also hopefully something which all, both current and past and future preachers in this church share and are committed to, which is a philosophy of listening very carefully to the text and wanting a church that is built up from that word. And that means dealing with the text faithfully such that we expound all matters that are relevant both to the congregation as well as which God wants us to address or be addressed by. And that means that in the end, the focus is not really on length, and I suppose that makes it somewhat unique or unconventional.
But as long as, I think, we are concerned enough about the welfare of God’s people, so that we are reasonable about the length and we expect people to be listening but we also accept that they may need to at a certain point break off, and at the same time, concerned about what God wants to say, I think length becomes a matter of a lower priority. And it is to some people something difficult to accept and so they express that in certain ways. And to other people, it’s something that they have learned to get used to. But in the end, if the focus isn’t merely on length, it does become in a sense, shorter. The whole experience becomes a lot more positive, hopefully.
And if we are focused on preaching the text faithfully, the result is, as often is the case especially during the pandemic where we’re afforded the opportunity, it does become longer as we move through the Biblical Theology series. You’ve seen that at times, when the text is large. So, we’re talking about pretty large books here, entire books of the Old Testament, we look at it as a whole because in biblical theology we are trying to understand what the whole book is offering in terms of understanding the whole landscape of ecclesiological salvation history and understanding it. And as a result, that will take some time to cover the whole book and then at the same time to draw out from it some biblical theological themes. It all takes obviously more than some time in a single session of the day. So, we’ve used the fact that during the pandemic we’re essentially recording it and then broadcasting it. We’ve used that fact to go past one particular session.
And that means that yes, it has resulted in absolute length that is longer than the average church most certainly, but our people have had a good look at how long this takes and in fact, per verse, it turns out that we are essentially only taking maybe a minute or more. So, in absolute terms, it does feel longer, but in actual terms, we are actually not focused on length and we are actually not very long at all. In absolute terms, we are focused ultimately on honouring God, in terms of how we are learning the text, how we are dealing with the text and how we are delivering the text. And when we do that, I think people will feel differently about it as well. And certainly, as I said, there’s a range of experiences but over time, most people in CERC do find that they not only get used to it, but they derive positive benefits from it. And we’re at the same time aware of the difficulties for situations like when you have young children and also with regards to say, work arrangements or work obligations and other commitments. So, we’re responsible that we tell our people – please arrange for all that and please take care of all those things as well. They are equal priority at some point during the day, but as a church we’re not going to be centred around what is just convenient.
Jan Tie: Right. I can see where the leadership is coming from. As a Christian I can agree with that. But there are still 2 issues that remain and that is that some people are still unhappy with the length of the sermon and some find it impractical. Mark, would you like to address this?
Mark: Yes, maybe I can talk about the unhappiness. And of course, as a church we hope that everyone’s experience of listening to the preaching of God’s word would be a positive one. And to that end we try to support the listening of the sermons in practically making sure the environment is comfortable, providing refreshments, giving people an outline to follow along, putting up bible references on the slides. That’s us trying to help the listener but we recognise also that it’s very much a part of who the person listening is as well. Sermons, whether long or short, as 2 Timothy 3:16 tells us, will teach, will rebuke, will correct and will train God’s people. And that’s not always going to be a very happy or positive experience initially, although God-willing, over time, it will result in God’s people being sanctified and built up. So, I’d encourage preachers to aim for faithfulness and to be effective in building up and sanctifying God’s people. And when we do fall short on that, definitely, let’s stop, let’s evaluate and improve on these things. But I would say as a preacher, don’t go primarily for the happiness of your audience. Sounds way too much like 2 Timothy 4’s warning against gathering teachers to say things that please our itching ears. Much better we preach for an audience of one – that is, we preach to please our master in heaven
Joel: I get that spending 7 hours a week listening to a sermon is uncommon. But I think maybe part of that unhappiness or sense of impracticality comes from thinking that we’d rather be doing something else instead of listening to the sermon, let’s say. But just to put some things into perspective, the average Malaysian, everyday, spends about 3 hours on social media, more than 2 hours on TV and another hour or so playing games or listening to music. And when we put that together, that’s actually about 7 hours of entertainment everyday, and to say a day, not even a week. And if you’re spending 7 hours on entertainment per day, I think that 7 hours a week learning God’s word… and if you think that that’s impractical, I think the problem is that it’s not so much about practicality but on priority. I mean, just take myself for example. When I was a single person, I had lots of free time and I would spend time watching TV, playing games, and all that kind of stuff. So, I get that 7 hours of entertainment thing. But now I’m married and have 2 kids, I just cut down on a lot of things that don’t edify my family. That transition is not easy because over the years, we all get addicted to the entertainment that we go for.
And let’s not even talk about Christians. Many working professionals, they would spend 7 hours a weekend studying for their MBA. Because that’s important to them right? It’s not impractical. It’s just important for us, especially as Christians, to spend time, to meditate on the Scriptures, when everyday in our lives we are being bombarded by worldly wisdom. And if you think about it, if you average out that 7 hours in a week, that’s just an hour a day to study God’s word. That’s not excessive. That’s not impractical. And over the course of the pandemic, lots of us were watching sermons from home, on our computers and TVs. It’s not like we are asking anyone to finish 7 hours in a sitting. And let’s say after watching 2-3 hours, you feel like you can’t concentrate that well, sure, you could pause, take a walk, take a drink and do what’s necessary and come back to it. So, at the bottom of it all, I don’t think practicality is really the main problem.
Jan Tie: I think that’s helpful. That’s very helpful. So thank you for that. But are there actually those who have had positive experiences in these types of sermons?
Joel: Yea, so to give one example, I have a growth group member that joined CERC in the middle of the pandemic. So, he’s been with us for slightly under a year, and what he’s learned in the past one year is more than the past 10 years of her life. He started off being really blur about the gospel, unable to articulate it well to evangelise to friends. I can see how his understanding of the gospel is really improving. It’s impacting his career decisions to prioritise growth in godliness to, in ministry, to serve God’s people, instead of being the average career-driven person. And that’s just one year in CERC.
And you know CERC sermons, it’s not just rich in terms of exegesis and theology, it’s also packed with application, reflection on culture, on ourselves, and that really helps us to translate what we learn into Christian living as well. And this kind of growth that I just mentioned, I don’t think that that’s something that can be achieved with let’s say a 20 minutes sermon on how to live a victorious life.
Mark: I see the same pattern in some of my growth group members as well. I think what’s typical would be, someone comes in, and one of the ladies in my group, she’s a bit older, and she told me at the beginning when she first started coming to CERC, she maybe understands only 20% of what’s going on in the sermon, but over the years she has grown herself and matured and at the same time put in more work into reading the bible for herself, comparing it to sermons, and reflecting on what she’s listening to because she’s started to understand more and more and that’s been so encouraging to us as we’ve seen her grow and bear fruit. And I think that’s something that we recognise and we understand so that our Sunday sermons are aimed at building up the church. So, Ephesians 4, word ministers, equipping the saints for the works of ministry. And that’s what we aim to achieve and that’s our target for Sundays. That the church would be built up.
Jan Tie: What about Penny or Jerome?
Jerome: Penny, do you want to go first?
Penny: I was going to say it’s really funny, because when Mark talked about the older lady who absorbed 20% of the sermon at the beginning of her experience in CERC, I was wondering if that was me. I was wondering if that was me because I really felt like I only had about 5% or 10% when I first came to CERC in 2011. It was a Good Friday sermon, but I felt like there was a lot that was packed into the sermon that I didn’t really catch and couldn’t really understand. Like arguments that are so long that I couldn’t follow. But instead of being a turn off for me, I felt like that was kind of an encouragement to me to keep coming, to keep learning. So, I don’t think we necessarily have to take it as a negative thing when we don’t understand the sermon or when the sermon is long. I feel like we can adopt that kind of humble posture, to say okay, this is really important stuff and it’s matters of eternity. You kind of want to put in that time to just learning those things and I don’t know whether it’s too conceited for me to say this but I personally have experienced that kind of positive experience in my life to have gone through just 13 years of being in CERC. Actually, not 13 but just about like 11 for me. 11 years of being in CERC and I have seen myself grow in these 11 years from someone who only had about 5% knowledge of what was going on in the sermon and now I wouldn’t say it’s 100% but it’s definitely a lot better and I could teach others as well, so I see that as a really good thing. So, I don’t know if that helps.
Jerome: Yea, we’re talking about positive experiences right, with regards to long sermons, and I do want to share a positive story, but these positive stories don’t come without struggle or pain, because we are talking about people’s sanctification in their growth in terms of their appreciation of the bible and their godliness and their ability to be effective in ministry. So, I’m just thinking of some of the young people that I’m ministering to in CERC and my little growth group. I look at them and I ask myself what can we do to nurture them in the faith, to build them up, and how did the long sermons actually benefit them? Does it actually benefit them? And in talking to them and ministering to them, working with them through the sermons, I mean they’re all at different levels of maturity, and so the appreciation for what they get on Sunday and what they can actually learn on Sunday is different across the board. It depends on where they are. But I’ve found that some of them, when they put their heart into it, they really work hard on Sunday to learn the scriptures together, not only do they grow in their understanding of the bible but they’ve also used what they’ve learned on Sunday to equip themselves in ministry. For Ephesians for example, they’ve converted what they’ve learned on Sunday into bible studies and materials that they can use to speak to their friends.
So, I suppose in this discussion about long sermons and what’s actually practical, the way I would probably want to ask the question is, what is the practical thing that we can do to train Christians to be effective for ministry, to evangelise, to teach the bible to their friends? And I think that to that end, what we are trying to do with long sermons is helpful to that. Of course, I’m not saying this is the only way to do it. There are all sorts of other ways that we can think about, about how to disciple our people. But certainly, when you have a careful study of the text on Sunday and try to give the big picture on how a particular text, especially since we’re going through the Biblical theology series, fits the canon of scripture, it does affect that and we have a bigger view of God, a bigger view of the gospel. And since we do put a lot more time into studying the bible on Sunday, I think to a certain extent, when you put more time into something, you know something a lot better. So, I’ve seen that in the lives of the students here. Some of them are adults that I’m ministering to here. So, I think overall, it’s great, it’s good for the church.
Robin: Well, I’ve seen the reality of what I think mostly everyone said in terms of my 3 children and I think they do represent a reasonable cross-section, well not completely, of our audience but also especially of our church, because we have one child, I won’t mention names obviously, but we have one child who is in a position of ministry responsibility, the president of his or her Christian Fellowship and also doing actively one-on-one bible study and also leading others in group studies. Another child is younger, another child is still growing and still becoming more and more mature, both in life and in thinking, and in understanding intellectually as well. And another child is in a situation where he or she is removed from our church context. In all 3 of them, you find that there is a range in their ability to understand.
So, as a father I feel very keenly the difficulty of the large and long and heavy sermons. The difficulty inherent in it for some who are trying to reach to a greater and greater level of understanding and maturity, to receive it, process it, and digest it. So, I grieve for those who are struggling with these sermons, I certainly do. My own children – not all of them will be able to grasp everything. But, not to mean at all that we don’t worry or are not concerned about those who struggle, the ones in my 3 children who have benefited the most are the ones who are working the hardest at it, and are doing ministry and last night one of them said to me, which just prompted my response here, that the reason why the one-on-ones that they did went well, or at least was faithful in their view to God and his theology, his message, and the text itself that they were handling, was because this child had a repository of knowledge, of sermons, in their past, for that many number of years, where for a long time they struggled to understand each individual sermon but they accumulated, in fact, the attitude that developed and in some sense, the total culture of CERC.
This child was saying that when they needed a verse for a certain point, they went to their cupboard, their wardrobe and picked out a shirt and they could see the theology and it triggered what that sermon was about. So, that’s symbolic of, to a large extent, what we’re trying to do in this church. We’re not trying to be long and we’re not trying to be short, because we definitely preach some very short sermons too. Geddit sermons sometimes take 30 minutes or 40 minutes. And we’re not trying to either match or not match the average length of a church sermon in Malaysia or Southeast Asia globally. We’re trying to do is God’s work. And therefore, paramount over and above the expectations of the audience, or the consumers, or my own beloved children, is the text.
If the text is a short psalm, we might want to take a while with it because we want to open it up because it’s poetry and it’s compressed. Or if the text is a lot of material and a large prophetic narrative, but we’re actually just doing the Biblical theology of it, we could do it in a day. But obviously, a text will normally take, let’s say 1 Samuel, half a year. To do it in a day will not be an hour. If you did 1 Samuel in an hour, I think it’s definitely going to cross over a normal church length into 2, 3, 4 hours but compared to how long it would normally take – 6 months, a year – that’s pretty short. And that’s one of the reasons why the total results of our survey, our research, has been that for each verse of the bible for the last 2 years in the series, we’ve only given it about a minute plus. But the total effect of that whole attitude, or so-called philosophy, that, hopefully, faithfulness to doing our best for God’s people is seen in I think at least my children, at least from this small sample.
We see that the one who is out of this context continues to be anchored by this certain love of the scriptures, by this certain attitude, and this child often gives us feedback that although the church they are going to is biblical, cause they’re not at CERC right now, there’s a difference, because the intensity, the depth is not quite there. And the other child who is active in ministry, the ability to ministry properly is served by this immersion in the scriptures, this attitude that leads but also the content that this child has learned. And for the other child, the hope that Joy and I have, can only be fulfilled by the quality of scripture.
So, to kind of quote Penny’s example again, the intent is not to befuddle people, to be elitist, to be a level above where people are as if we are trying to chase an elusive standard. The intent is when we do the scriptures, so long as we can say that the choice of the passage where we start and end that passage in relation to the text, or the choice of book in relation to the topic, so long as we can say that the size of what we’ve chosen is faithful, and we don’t get to choose that you know. We can’t start in the beginning of the sentence and stop halfway through just because we feel like the length is just beyond what we want to do. We’ve got to start and end where the point is, or the logical pericope or the section that we need to cover. So long as we are faithful in doing that, then my so-called philosophy for this church is that the preacher needs to take as long as he needs to take.
When Jerome first started when he came back from the states, he had a certain cultural expectation, I think, inbuilt in him from many years overseas that kind of limited him. And I said, I don’t want you to be limited either by a sense of “I’m in training” so I can’t speak the way Robin does to the congregation. To some extent that’s true, but in the end when you’re a preacher of the text, whether you’re an apprentice or whether you’re a pastor or some famous archbishop, the bottom-line is that God is speaking. You’re not God when God is speaking in his text. So, If God wants to talk for 6 hours, then God is going to talk for 6 hours. You’re not God but that text is boss. So, who told you to stop when you hadn’t finished explaining it? Who told you to undercut the thinking and the application that is required?
The truth of the matter is that we don’t know the congregations perfectly. You know if you have a very close friend, you could probably say half a sentence and leave it at that. Like if your close friend, called Jeanette or something. You could say, Jeanette, you know what to do. That leaving it there, that hanging, that silence, it reverberates the soul because you know her and she knows that you know what she knows she needs to be doing. Preachers don’t know that. Even prophets have to explain the text; so, we have to be up there and not pretend to be gods and explain the text and make sure people understand it. That means that even if someone says “but I can’t understand anything,” we can’t stop for that person as if that person was the criteria and standard of the church. The standard of faithfulness for all pastors, all teachers, all people who take up the pulpit in CERC is – have you explained it according to the text’s standards, not people standards? So, if you have a thousand illiterate people in church (and this runs counter to many people’s thinking in Malaysia that I’ve experienced), even if you have a thousand people who were literate in church, we are still going to have to explain the text, because what converts people, changes people, sanctifies people, and makes people ready for ministry, is the text.
Now I’m happy for other churches, other people, other Christians, to decide that they don’t want any of it. Okay. This is CERC though. We’re trying our best to make sure that the text rules and the text is the means by which people do ministry, grow, and learn, in fact, to appreciate exactly what we’re doing. And if you can’t and you won’t, or you don’t want to, then we have to accept that for those who have expressed themselves unhappily about these things, we have to accept that we may need to part ways.
Jan Tie: I think that was very helpful, what all of you said, and actually Robin, you answered my next question, whether or not these long sermons are unbiblical. You said that as long as it’s faithful to the text and the preachers are working hard at that, it is biblical.
Robin: Well strictly speaking (and the viewers can write in if they know something), I don’t see the bible giving us a time limit. So, one simple way to answer the whole topic could have been from the very start, saying where in the bible is there even a time limit? Either on how long someone should preach the text or how long the church meeting or congregation meeting should be. If anything, church history teaches us the total opposite from the current practices. For instance, if you’re Anglican, you’ll know that quite often, people would have to go for morning and evening services. And if you look at the length of the bible and how it is written, many of them are for instance in sermons, I don’t see how with Acts 17 for instance – we all know is very long, and these are pagans listening, so it’s actually compressed so it wouldn’t be very long. Acts 2, that would have been a much longer sermon. Deuterenomy as a whole – that would be a full sermon. Hebrews was written as a sermon. And then there’s famous expressions like “finally” but that’s after 3 or 4 chapters. (Editor’s Note: The speaker was referring to Philippians 3:1)
So, the bible is a pretty heavy book and some people would call it elitist as a result. And no wonder then, it’s resulted in people like Shakespeare and the English-speaking world. There’s a reason why Christians are people who started schools and were quite often in the past incredibly educated people. So, it’s not so much an elitism that’s the point. It may be the by-product or the result, unfortunately, but it’s really a love for God who is, after all, a God who made words and made literature and science and economics and philosophy and physics. He’s got a very, very big brain so obviously as his people, for us to not want to learn deeply and to drink from this deep and rich fountain, is actually, I think, a problem. And potentially, the attitude may say something about our priorities and maybe our heart.
So, I don’t know. I leave it to the viewers to decide but as a whole I don’t think you can easily say that the bible restricts CERC from what it’s doing and if anything, I think you might say the opposite. So, I plead with churches, pastors, friends and all Christians out there to not use this to spread malicious rumours about CERC. And also, if I can appeal personally, I’ve had friends who’ve said that I’m doing this because I’m grandstanding. I can tell you, and maybe you haven’t heard me say this, but the congregations have heard me say this, I actually feel quite embarrassed when I finish sermons that are long. I feel embarrassed personally as a human being, but I have to remind myself not to be embarrassed because what I did do was I dealt with the text. And sometimes, the people have taken the trouble to actually listen to the sermons. They often have not gone away happy, those people who are critics. They haven’t said “Oh I love the sermon.” But they have said, I think this is a fair point. They have said, “Well, there wasn’t a lot, other than the bible, so can’t fault him there.” So, I accept that people are inconvenienced. I accept that not everyone is happy. I accept that not everyone likes what we’re doing. But I don’t believe it’s unbiblical and in fact, if anything, in CERC, I think we’ve seen a lot of positive examples.
Jan Tie: Thank you, Robin. Well, this brings us to my final question actually. It’s more on the side of pastoral care since you brought up how people are responding to the sermons. So perhaps, Joel, you can answer this question, or any of you since you are all leaders. Is there any kind of pressure on church-goers to finish listening to these sermons?
Joel: Well, when you think of pressure, there’s healthy pressure and there’s unhealthy pressure. Maybe let me just talk about unhealthy pressure first, which I do not condone. I don’t exercise it. Unhealthy pressure is when, let’s say, we just want to tick a box – “I’ve finished listening to the whole sermon”. And when we do that, we think it makes us look good to other people or it achieves some kind of merit, and it pleases someone. Well, look, that kind of thinking is unbiblical. We do not condone that, we do not practice that, we do not encourage that, I would definitely discourage it. But I do think that there is a kind of pressure that is healthy and biblical. The Christian within themselves, they should want to learn the scriptures, they should want to grow to become more Christlike, they should want to be able to teach and make disciples, to be able to discern false teaching, so that kind of pressure, from within, to want to be Christlike, to want to know God, I think that’s healthy. That’s biblical. I think every Christian should have it, should want it. I, as a Christian leader, would encourage all of us to have that. And I think that if a Christian does not have this pressure within them, I think that that’s a problem.
So, for the sermon, I get that it takes time, but my expectation is that we all see value in learning the scriptures and take our time to finish it. Some of us might have the whole day dedicated to it, and finish the whole sermon a lot quicker. Some of them like me, in the day we get a bit busy and might take a little bit longer but I would finish the sermon and expect others to do the same as well.
I think that if we do catch ourselves trying to finish the sermon just to please somebody in church, to please man, then that’s the time that we’ve got to stop and do some self-reflection and go back to the question of why we’re listening to the preaching of God’s word in the first place. Remember that this is God’s word that we are listening to and this is the way that we are built up and this is the way that we can then build up one another as well. I think that as we go back to those first principles, that’s where we’re going to find the right kind of motivation and desire to immerse ourselves in God’s word and to spend time listening to it preached and reflecting on it.
Jerome: I want to jump in and say also, I guess, in just interacting with friends and stuff like that, I guess there’s a difference between having no pressure at all to wanting to listen to the sermon and learn from it versus having some pressure expressed in the form of leaders asking, “Hey, how have you found the sermon?”, “What have you learned from it?”, “What are some of your takeaways?”
In one of the unique experiences I still remember when I came to CERC, some members were asking me what I learned from the sermon and they wanted to talk to me about the sermon after the gathering was over because typically in church settings, after church is over, you just go out, talk about football maybe, talk about church politics, talk about weather although the weather is the same in Malaysia all the time. But talking about the sermon, learning from God’s word and having a discussion about theology and the text, I’ve found that to be something that’s rich here in our culture, and I think as Robin was saying earlier about his kids just catching that culture from just the intensity, seeing the leaders in this church putting time and effort and energy into trying to teach the bible, I think that reflects what we’re really on about, which is, it’s not, at the end of the day, about moralism or trying to get people to check boxes but what does it mean to be the people of God, who sit under his word, who are enthusiastic about learning the scriptures and how we apply it in how we live. So, I think, as Joel was saying, healthy pressure – I think that’s what we’re thinking about as we try to encourage our members to finish the sermons.
Penny: When I was just thinking about the question, “Do we have pressure to finish the sermons?” I thought like that’s such a funny question because it’s like asking a Christian, “Do you feel any pressure as a Christian to do good works?” Or “Do you feel any pressure as a Christian to read the bible?” But I feel like it can go both ways in terms of the understanding. If you have a legalistic mindset then of course everything is wrong about the question and you can approach it in a very wrong way, but if you have a really healthy mindset about pleasing God in your Christian life and wanting to be in a place where there’s good culture among the people and among the members to encourage you towards holiness, then this is actually a really good thing, to be in a church where there are members who would ask you, “Hey, have you caught up with the sermon last week?”, “What do you think of it?” Things like that, I feel like I am really truly blessed to be in a church like this and anytime, even if I had to relive my life again, I would choose to go to a church where there are people asking me you know, “Have you caught up with the sermon?” As opposed to a church where nobody asks me how long have I finished the sermon or have I read my bible. And this is just one of the many things that I love about being in CERC.
Jan Tie: Thank you all for your input and your time. Thank you for clarifying all these questions on CERC sermons. I do believe that it has been helpful and I hope it gives the viewers something to think about as they go about their day today. And you know, there are definitely some more questions that we would like to ask about CERC, on other matters, not just sermons. But that’s all the time we have for today. So, stay tuned for our next episode. I’m Jan Tie and this is The Lens.