An inteview with Manuel Rainho, the General Secretary of Portuguese IFES Group.
This interview is part of a series made by the EEA. They took the theme, “House on the Rock”, and spoke to different people about listening and hearing the Word, for it is with hearing that Jesus starts this parable: “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice…” (Matthew 7:24a)
Manuel Rainho is the General Secretary of Grupo Bíblico Universitário (Portuguese IFES Group).
He taught for many years in the Baptist Seminary in Lisbon, supported a church plant in downtown Lisbon, and is the author of the book “Misterioso Jesus. Procurando a verdade sobre a identidade de Jesus” (Mysterious Jesus. Looking for the truth about the identity of Jesus).
Question. Evangelical Christians read and hear the Word both at home and in church, where the sermon is usually the central moment of the church service. Do you think we prioritise one form of hearing the Word over the other?
Answer. I would say that a true evangelical Christian is one who gives equal importance to hearing the Word corporatively as he or she does to studying it individually—that is in the DNA of evangelicalism.
An evangelical Christian will typically think of him or herself as giving equal importance to the reading of the Bible at home as much as the reading of the Bible in church.
In practice, however, this has not ended up happening. I think there are generations that have stepped away from this ideal, but for reasons that don’t relate to this evangelical mindset.
It is for practical reasons, the way society over time became structured: it’s about time, or time management, which makes it easier for people to reserve the time to read and listen to the Bible in church rather than do it at home. But those who do this know that something is missing.
Q. Given our busy lives it is remarkable to think people go to church to hear the Word, instead of just sitting at home for this. How do you see this moment of the sermon within our church services?
A. I think going to church and hearing a sermon is an absolutely unique moment that we have in our culture. When else do we make ourselves available to stop everything else that we are doing, and accept that our minds be invaded by the words of someone else?
This happens individually—we listen to podcasts, radio, television. But to actually go to a place together, and be willing to connect to each other through this message that is transmitted from the front! I think this is unique!
I don’t see this happening anywhere else, even families at home watching TV and on their phones, each one is looking at his or her own content. They might be physically together, but intentionally are in different spaces, be it social networks, channels, etc.
So the moment of the Sermon is unique—I think it is a small miracle!
Another extremely rare thing happening here is that the sermon creates a moment of introspection for everyone, that every week you are led to question yourself because the Gospel deconstructs and challenges us.
The Gospel calls us to task, weekly! Look at our neighbours—who sits down every week and accepts to be personally challenged? This is another side to this cultural miracle.
Q. How would you say evangelical Christians interpret the moment of the Sermon: is it God speaking, is it a prophetic voice, are people looking for sustenance to keep them throughout the week, are they seeking intellectual and spiritual stimulus?
A. I think it is a little of all of these reasons, perhaps, except the first. This is because there is a profound crisis in authority in our society today. This has a good side and a bad side.
The bad side is society does not trust any more—teachers, parents, the police, the military, much less politicians. For anyone who is a figure of authority, our culture has this automatic predisposition of mistrust. This is the mindset.
The pastor is a figure of authority, and so is included in this attitude of mistrust. So I think that when people hear a sermon, honestly they don’t hear this as God speaking because they are hearing a human being who is interpreting the Word of God.
And they will connect all those things that person is saying to all they have searched on the Internet, their conversations over coffee, with their families, their own personal experiences.
While listening, they are always in an internal dialogue between what the preacher is saying and “what I think.” No way do people think, “alright, this is the moment I am listening to God”.
But there are also positive aspects. One of them, I think, is that the crisis in authority is creating the need to develop leaders over chiefs or bosses. This is a big problem in Portugal. Portugal does not have leaders, we just have bosses, chiefs (in companies, etc).
This crisis in authority makes the person that needs to convince someone else to have to do it not because of their position in leadership, but through their ability to persuade. And this is good, because that is the difference between a chief and a leader.
It makes the preacher have to convince the other because of his or her message, and not because he or she is speaking from a pulpit.
Q. As a society we are always looking for something new, the latest thing, and I feel this carries on into how I hear sermons. I sometimes evaluate sermons and sweep them aside, saying, “oh, that was nothing new!”
A. Exactly, the sermon is a moment people are seeking sustenance, but they are also looking for intellectual stimulus—and this is a negative aspect. And is a danger. Does the Gospel have to always be new?
Recalling Chesterton, have we lost the ability children have, to wonder at the repetition of the same jokes and plays when we know how they end?
This is a problem even with my daughter, I get bored when playing with her. I do something spontaneous, and she laughs, and asks me to repeat it. But I think, the fun in this was the spontaneity, if I repeat it is no good!
This is a great cultural problem, and we know the origin of this, it is the overcharge of stimulus our brains are subjected to. At each click on an Internet page, or in a news article, or jumping from one chat to another in WhatsApp, one moment I’m talking to you, another I’m talking to someone else.
This is all feeding my brain, which is overcharged with a dopamine addiction. So when I go and listen to a sermon, each week, I am also expecting to hear something new and unexpected.
If someone repeats the same message as last week, I—who haven’t even had time to apply that message during the week and see changes in my life—will get all annoyed and offended!
Q. Is there space to question the format of the sermon in our churches? Or perhaps from what you are saying, it is not so much that we should question the sermon in its format, but the way we are receiving it. Perhaps it is our predisposition to listen that should be rethought.
A. Well, yes. There is space to question the sermon, but this is the great dilemma. What good is the sermon if it does not reach and interact with who listens? This is not a dilemma of the sermon, but a dilemma about contextualisation.
Q. Are there other ways of “doing” this moment of the sermon?
A. Yes, of course, but that depends on what you mean by “this moment.” When people were listening to a parable of Jesus, they were listening to Jesus. If so, every time they were watching or listening to Jesus, they were listening to the Word.
If they were listening to the The Word, then of course there are other ways of listening and engaging Scripture beyond sermons. Because the sermon is a very specific format, and there are many other ways of listening to the Word.
And especially in this complex and plural society, with this cacophony of voices, where people have multiple sources, and the sermon is only one more source in the midst of all.
I would say that I seriously hope there are other ways of listening to the Word beyond the sermon! And here I am not downgrading the sermon—remember, I think it is a small miracle—but considering our plurality, we have to have other ways of listening to the Word.
Because Christ did not speak in one single way. He spoke publicly, gave sermons, spoke individually with people, asked uncomfortable questions, spoke through parables. There have to be other formats beyond the sermon, otherwise we’re in trouble.
Q. Given what we have been discussing, how do you hear the parable of the “House on the Rock”?
A. Hearing should be a listening with openness of heart. An openness to otherness. Being open to hear the other’s words. I am not only talking about God, I mean all those who are different to me.
And that will challenge me to think in a different way. In a way, this creates a disruption in my own thinking. And this is something that we see in the parable. The one who hears—the one who has this predisposition to actually listen—does not stay there, but manages to practice.
In this parable, the one who does not hear and is not willing to practice, will have his house built on sand. This is more problematic than we are willing to think. Our evangelical culture teaches us to talk and not listen.
It teaches to speak the truth that we want to deliver, assuming others will listen, but we do not give the example of listening to others.
And this is an endemic problem in the evangelical culture. How do you want others to listen to the Gospel if those that are transporting the Word don’t teach others how to listen, and think that they themselves don’t have to listen, because it is others that should be listening to them?
This is a serious problem in our evangelical culture. Once again, the practice of the sermon can help us here, because this is when we stop and listen. This is a revolutionary moment in our culture!
This article was first published on the EEA's website and re-published with permission.