He Stopped the Sermon

After many years in the pulpit, Steve Simms gave up preaching. He turned the floor over to his congregation. And he’s never looked back.

Every Sunday at Berry Street Worship Center in Nashville, Tennessee, the faithful gather to hear and share personally what God is doing in their lives. It’s unscripted, and often surprising. Simms says, “Every Sunday we say we’ve never seen anything like that.” And that’s the way he–and his congregation–like it.

The people of Berry Street follow the advice in 1 Corinthians 14:26: “Whenever you come together, each one has a psalm, a teaching, a revelation, another language, or an interpretation.”

Simms said, “I’ve seen people grow spiritually far more rapidly in this style than when I was preaching.”

In fact, back in his preaching days, Simms polled his congregants with general recall questions about his sermon content. “Not one person could answer the questions,” he said.

And, the old one-way communication model is a primary reason today’s people are staying away from church, according to research.

In today’s Holy Soup podcast with Steve Simms, he explains how he conducts his participatory Sunday services. And he offers troubleshooting tips for some common worries about this style of message-bringing, including how to handle long-winded individuals, theological impurity, and shy members. Listen to the conversation here:


Simms has discovered what others, in other fields, are finding: the monolog lecture method has diminishing returns. Stanford professor and Nobel laureate Carl Wieman says the college lecture is the educational equivalent of bloodletting. He’s seen leaps in student learning through more participatory teaching methods.

For preachers who claim they’re driven by some biblical “mandate” to deliver a 30-minute lecture every Sunday, Steve Simms has some advice: “That biblical mandate goes far beyond the pastor. That mandate to preach the gospel was to all the disciples.” And he sees the people of Berry Street, after exercising their faith on Sunday, freely sharing the Good News in their everyday lives in the real ministry field.

Simms shares his story in his new book, Beyond Church: An Invitation to Experience the Lost Word of the Bible.

60 Responses to “He Stopped the Sermon”

  1. This is kind of like a search for that magic snake oil, that one-fits all utopian church. People learn differently. Everyone has different interests. Interests and preferences change through life.

    Basically, a church is looking for a way to satisfy the largest group and just sacrifice those who don’t fit or can accept the way they do church. This worked for this church.

    Even with the given example, your going to get complaints, “So-in-so is always hogging all the time every week.” and of course. You give certain people a platform and they will talk… and talk… and talk. On the opposite end, you have the introvert who won’t say a word. This introvert [me] ears got tired over the years and I tend to pull away from and avoid these people who don’t know when to shut up.

    This example church sounds like they have something good going for them but knowing myself, it isn’t for me. My church days are over. Somehow I inherited my grandfathers tendency and I think that thinking is also hereditary in some ways to where church ended up being none-value-added so I stopped going as they did.

    • Ryan yours is a great post until the last paragraph. Church has no value to you perhaps. But when you became a Christian it stopped being about you and started being about Christ and others. Nowhere in the scriptures do we see Christians going it alone, no matter how corrupt the religious system got. Somewhere theres a church that needs an introvert like you to help the other introverts, because you are the only one that understands them.

      • Ryan, this is NOT Church. It is the gathering of the ekklesia as it is laid out in scripture in 1 Corinthians 12:26.
        It was done like this for the first 300 years of the faith until the Worst thing Ever happened to the church and Constantine made it “expectable.” Look at China over the last 60 years since the real believers had to go underground. The Faith has Exploded. China will soon be the Largest Christian Nation in the World.
        I to am done with “church,” But this is a completely different thing.
        If you’ve never experienced it you will be amazed and Changed!
        When Jesus really is the active Head of His own Body and Not Just a Figurehead it is wonderful!

    • This is what we Quakers do and have done for 350 years. Each of us can minister what is in our hearts.

  2. Tom commented on Facebook: “I’ve seen this in a limited sense. It can become a drawn-out time of loose interpretation and rambling that benefits no one. It could work, but the congregation I’ve experienced it with, on about a dozen times, just had no boundaries.”

    • Marty replied on Facebook: “Agreed. There always seems to be a need for a facilitator who is Spirit led. In a body where there would be varying degrees of Biblical literacy, I’d be far more comfortable knowing ‘course correction’ was welcome.”

    • Things can go awry but this is the value of leadership. There are many more benefits to this style of church such as each individual has the added value of taking ownership of their faith, especially when it registers that they are expected to have something to share. One of the other bonuses is I have found that trying to identify with multiple peoples experiences is much richer for a congregation than trying to get it all through one person. Our experiences in life and being able to see these experiences in light of God’s word is magic. This is one way I can say the word is a living Word. I believe this is part of what John 1:1 is saying when he says “we talk about those things our eyes have seen and our hands have handled”.

  3. Ahh, yes… Those pesky uncontrollable and annoying microphone hogs. Can’t have them, no sirreee. Much better to just pack their heads full of stuff they can’t even remember an hour later!

    Much like the training that was given to our current ‘orators’, leaders and congregations need to be trained and refined in the interactive style. Many will not be able to ‘wrap their heads’ around a way that is so different from their lifetime of church experience.

    How I long to see more leaders and fellow disciple makers who are more interested in following the Master than in just doing it the way it’s always been done. We need more examples like Steve Simms.

  4. When thinking about sermon formats at 30 minutes plus there is a book that ought to be read: Amusing Ourselves to Death, by Neil Postman. It is dated, having been written during the era of broadcast network TV, but still worth the look. The thesis of the book centers on the coversion of our cultural institutions and forms into entertainment. But the real eye-opener is the overview of 19th century culture of literacy where people routinely listened to oration for hours.

    Sermons created as lengthy lectures are a left-over artifact. That culture that supports this been eroding steadily and is now almost completely gone.

  5. Bob commented on Facebook: “We have to start somewhere. Obviously it’s best in cell churches and small congregations, sure can’t see it in a mid sized or mega chuch. Can you imagine what would happen in a congregation of 800 or so, recipe for disaster, not to mention even bigger bodies.”

  6. Rod commented on Facebook: “I’m currently reading his book and enjoying what he has to say. I guess what I keep going back to is that while he speaks about ekklesia, he is still dependent on what is institutionalized as a platform. Therefore, I don’t know if it’s true ekklesia or trying to fit what people think ekklesia is into the Salvation Army box. That’s not to say that the Salvation Army doesn’t do good works, but I think true ekklesia is way more out of the box than what Steve is even suggesting. Possibly it’s church being done in a more unplugged way. There’s still a doctrinal / denominational framework to direct them.”

    • I largely agree Rod. Ecclesia is way more than a meeting or a meeting format. Of course there is a gathering for mutual interaction and encouragement of believers, but true ecclesia is 24/7 ‘being and living’ by the indwelling Christ, with expression in the community and in the market place. I know this from a re-study of the Scriptures plus decades of pastoral and small group experience. The 1 Cor. 14 scenarios works best in a smaller ‘organic house church’ setting where folk grow in relationship and trust. We have had our fair share of introverts over the years, and we have seen them become amenable to exchange, sharing and true fellowship – but you can’t do that in a bigger group. Acts 2 etc talks about gathering from house to house – imagine the size of houses in that ancient culture, at least those of the common people. And of course, most believers don’t get it that for the first 300 years of the Church there were no such things even as ‘church buildings’! That ‘go to church’ syndrome kills all experience of ‘being the church.’

    • Not really Rod. I’ve been there to visit and talked with Steve on the phone before that. This “Corp” (What the SA calls a church) had been closed down. Failed! They asked Steve if he would be willing to take it and do “church” however he saw fit. He did thank God.

  7. Excellent, Mr. Schultz. Excellent.

  8. Our church has been trying this over the past 6 weeks and our congregation has overwhelmingly embraced this approach.
    Most families with children in school over the past 15 years in our community (Indianapolis) understand the educational concept of “active learning”. This is just proof of the success of this model – which is not new in our generation at all.

  9. Back in the “old days”, we called this testifying and it was done at Wednesday night “prayer meetings.” I still feel the need to be TAUGHT, out of the Bible. Your adventure or answer to prayer might encourage me, but I still want to be taught. So much emphasis on entertaining rather than teaching it seems. Heaven help us if we hear a sermon on sin!!

    • Most preachers cant teach….a good lesson is just as convicting as a good sermon, and stays with you longer.

    • Sue: There is no “entertainment” in this approach, however, we do experience much teaching as people share Scriptures and insights as they are prompted by the Holy Spirit. One lady who started coming to Berry Street said that she was concerned that she wouldn’t get teaching; however, after a few weeks she said that she was learning more about the Bible with us than in a traditional worship service.

  10. When I think of the way my kids–one Gen X, two Millennials, and one on the cusp–were taught in school, it was much more interactive than the way I was taught. The teachers were also generally more involved with the students than mine were. When they come to church, though, they hear “a lecture and a concert” as one of my 40-something friends put it. I think it takes a special kind of pastor to be able to handle and moderate a more participatory service, but as long as s/he can keep it within time and theological bounds, I can see that it would be very engaging.

    I used to manage a Christian coffee house in the Jesus People days. I hired folk and rock groups, and they were given instructions to keep the talking to the minimum (a church member would give a short devotional between sets) because they were being paid to play. Sometimes their theology was pretty sketchy, so keeping it in the music and not the lecture context was also important to us. When the program part was done, we stayed for “AfterGlow,” where there was sharing and prayer. That’s where the spiritual growth occurred.

    I agree with Sue Cornelius that we also need to be taught, but honestly, I have not heard a teaching sermon from the pulpit in my church in so long, I can’t remember the last one.

  11. The local church I attend has taken a similar approach but with a bit more structure. The pastor preaches two times a month, usually the first and third Sunday. On the second Sunday the congregation breaks up into small groups. Each group usually has a small groups leader as a facilitator helping get the conversations flowing. The groups are given different scripture texts or parts or a large text and specific topics to discuss pertaining to the text. The assistant pastor facilitates the overall discussion. We’ve found that this helps develop relationships between the 93 year old senior member and the high school aged worshipers while not making the groups so large that voices don’t get heard.
    While some have complained, and even walked out, the majority of individuals enjoy this service due to the interaction. The pastoral staff enjoys the service, perhaps more than the congregants, due to the fact that they can understand almost immediately what individuals have retained from the teaching, preaching, and small groups throughout the week while at the same time being able to address any confusion in Biblical context.
    The fourth week, not always but more often than not, is a short devotion to focus the members on what we’ve discussed and then we go out into the community and do service, always with the understanding that we are not “taking” Christ to the masses, but “searching” for him in the unexpected places with the hope and expectation of encountering him there.

    • How do you handle visitors on the second and fourth Sundays? For someone like me, who loves discussion, this would be engaging, but for someone who is just dipping her toe in the waters, it might feel difficult to break in. Do the leaders look for new people and invite them to sit, or are there greeters?

  12. I think this model has merit. I think there is a HUGE need for testimony. However given the reality that biblical truth and doctrine (i.e. catechesis) is lost on most of our culture (credit to C. Smith M.Lindquist in Soul Searching) I wonder if we should incorporate this kind of sharing into worship instead of getting rid of the sermon. Especially for those whose only entrance into the community is only during worship.

  13. And so goes the demise of the church. What exactly are you getting paid to do again? Not to mention …so we do not need someone qualified to teach the scriptures? People wonder why people give up on church…..such a need to “market” and not be lead by the Holy Spirit in pure worship and praise.

    • A pastor is getting paid to equip the saints and perform the sacraments. In the Reformed Church, the forthtelling of the word is a part of it, but actually, all elders are expected to be able to preach. And if the pastor is doing her job–equipping the saints and not hogging the pulpit–more of them would be able to do that.

      • The pastor’s job is to be the shepherd, the overseer. The modern church hasn’t followed the New Testament example for a long, long time. I believe that the pattern that Paul described was stronger than advice. The services that I’ve been in that were led by the Holy Spirit were unplanned by man. The singing was spontaneous and nothing even close to a performance. And while I’m on the subject of music, there’s very little in the New Testament about music; Jesus and his disciples sang a hymn (Matthew 26:30); twice “songs and hymns and spiritual songs” are mentioned (Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16). And Hebrews 2:12 “…in the midst of the church will I sing praise unto thee.” A couple of other places and that’s about it. Nowhere does it talk about worship teams or half of the service being music. This comment might be better placed in the Why They Don’t Sing on Sunday Anymore post, but it fits here, too. I don’t see any directives or advice on performances. The Body of Christ was designed to be a fully functioning body.

      • Just one small point. The pastor’s (shepherd) job is not to be THE shepherd and overseer. The pastor’s job is to shepherd the flock and be ONE of the oversight according to scripture.

  14. I talked to someone who has endured one to two hour sermons from a pastor with a PhD. for the past 20 years and I asked him what did it do for him in his walk with Jesus and could he give me examples of the fruit it produced through him to his family and friends. He couldn’t give me a single example, instead told me the many hardships he endured in his relationships, then he broke down crying. I believe he is just a tip of the iceberg.

  15. We were doing this sort of thing 50 years ago. Our meetings had no pastor, no preacher, no platform, no pulpit and no programme. What we did have was the power and leading of the Holy Spirit. Average attendance was about 250 in a small building (close fellowship).

    The church was in hands of seven elders and if anything wayward happened, one of them stepped in and brought the meeting back on track. In 10 years of meetings, it only happened five times. We met at 10.30 am and 6 pm. One morning meeting finished at 3 pm and one evening meeting finished at midnight. Who wants to leave when the Holy Spirit is firing on all cylinders. Just go with the flow.

    We sat round the four walls of the room. No fellowship with the back of heads. The middle of the room was the dance floor. Anyone spoke as they were moved by the Spirit to do so. I remember in one meeting one of deacons who was as quiet as the proverbial church mouse getting to his feet and saying “the Lord has shown me that there is someone here who is a smoker and he wants you to know you can be free of it. He has given me the number five but I am not sure of the context” and then he sat down.

    A moments silence and then a visitor stood up and said “That is me. I smoke five cigarettes a day every day.” We prayed for him and the meeting continued. Six months later the visitor came back for another visit. He told the congregation “since that day I have not had a single cigarette.”

    When you let the Holy Spirit run the show, you get lasting results.

  16. Our church is so unique in that the pastor is determined to let God lead.
    On my second Sunday visiting the Holy Spirit was so thick in the room, I hadn’t experienced that in years in a church. He got up and said- so God’s here and he’s doing stuff so im going to shelve my sermon and let’s break into groups instead. It was sooo uncomfortable at first but God did tremendous things in me and my marriage that day. We knew we had found our church. Every week is a mystery as to what to expect. I’ve now met people there who had been out of church for decades who can’t wait for Sunday morning. I often think- how humbling it must be that the leadership carefully plans each week only to find out they’ve been sidelined by God. Millennial perspective.

  17. Ivor commented on Facebook: “Sounds like this brother is beginning to listen to God and not man. Glory! He has taken a step toward progress. Now he needs to become one of the brethren and probably the least of the brethren. Put the lecturn on the burnpile. :>) “

  18. Alice wrote on Facebook: “The idea sounds good but I agree that it could only work in a very small congregation.”

    • Alice, the basic idea of encouraging people to share their faith stories can be done with any size congregation. I regularly use this approach with hundreds of people at a time. And I’ve done it with thousands. It’s simply a matter of asking people to talk with one other person, or with several others. The leader/facilitator sets the tone, and introduces a question or theme to talk about. It works–with the help of the Holy Spirit.

  19. David commented on Facebook: “Thom and Steve, this was great. I had to listen to it twice!”

  20. Most interesting. Well worth checking out

  21. As I listened to this again, I noticed that I talked about being the leader. Actually the Holy Spirit is the Leader, but we have an informaloverseer team. My wife, Ernie (she is female), and I are officially what The Salvation Army calls “officers” (our name for “ministers”) and we function as a team. We also have several mature believers who are very sensitive to the Spirit and help oversee the meetings. When my wife and I are gone, the meeting runs very effectively without us..

    • Preaching is important, but no where in scripture does it say that the pastor is supposed to preach a sermon every Sunday morning. I Cor. 14:26 says “when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying.” EVERY ONE. Church was not designed to be a spectator event, but that’s what we’ve made it into. It’s edifying for the body to have a chance to share what the Lord is doing in their life. In the vast majority of churches, when does that body life occur? Not on Sunday morning. Sunday night services have largely disappeared. Not Sunday school, with its prepared lesson. Usually not Bible Study, with its prepared lesson. We have structured the Holy Spirit out of our services.

      • So true and it happens that way because it enables the pastor to control the congregation. He needs to do this because he is so insecure.

  22. Robert commented on Facebook: “Preaching is not just a stuffy old American formality within a church service. It is ordained, and commanded by God and is not optional. Yes, there are a million things we can do that can do good things, but forsaking God’s plan and directive for the church is wrong and inexcusable.”

    • Replying to Robert’s comment. Yes, preaching is commanded by God. However, a traditional, one-man sermon for 20 minutes to an hour, is not the only (or primary) way of preaching in the Bible. Jesus “preached” wherever He went. So did the Apostles. So can we. Preaching is proclaiming the truth about the Gospel. As the priesthood of believers, we can all do that. The world needs more preachers (ever Christian proclaiming the Gospel) not fewer.

  23. Wow, Awesome stuff Steve! Thx for sharing this 😉

  24. Eric posted on Facebook: “After years of getting talked at, elementary-school style, it was a huge difference to join in the conversation at Berry Street.”

  25. Tim commented on Facebook: “I think this is good – I hope the author realizes that these aren’t competing “styles” on how we do church, but in order to demonstrate God’s value system, who don’t gather in a manner that dominates or elevates one over another. That is why we allow anyone who has something from the Lord to speak.”

  26. I have known the Simms and attend here, not every Sunday, but quite a bit. I have seen individuals grow, but also a group grow in their receptivity of listening to the Spirit. Sometimes people get physically healed, sometimes people cry because they are being healed emotionally or are overwhelmed by the love of God.

  27. Bruce commented on Facebook: “And preaching is and always has been an important/necessary part of worship. So you turn the floor over to 200 people with as many ideas allowing them to express what a passage means to them? The scripture is not about what it means to me or even how I feel about it. Even a dozen people with no training in scripture is like a can of worms opened. The gospel is not mass marketing strategies that appeal to the world. Never has been never will be.”

  28. So Bruce, you’re saying we should avoid allowing people “to express what a passage means to them”? Do you believe scripture is intended to be consumed only by professional Christians?

  29. Carrie Ann Calay Reply May 22, 2016 at 2:09 am

    Mr. Schultz: Steve Simms shared your blog about the Berry Street Worship Center on the Quakers facebook group page. I have skimmed many of the comments above and have yet to find one that mentions that the Society of Friends (Quakers), for well over 300 years , have observed the practice of Spirit-lead shared ministry in the Unprogrammed Meeting for Worship. Interesting to note that this practice has supported Quakers in their faith and practice, and worked extremely well for so long. Some of your readers might enjoy more information regarding the value and practicality of shared ministry (which of course is, truly, lead by the Holy Spirit)! Thank you.

  30. It took me over 25 yrs to realize that what we do in a religious “God Box” on Sundays listening to a lecture and repeating lyrics that mean nothing to us is NOT the New Testament church. After struggling with suicide and memories of childhood sexual abuse for years with no help, just folks saying I needed to “forget about it and get more involved” I left and found healing in a group like the one described above. A group that did not have all the answers but that listened, prayed and loved!! I have been out of the box, healed and helping others heal for over 30 yrs. I baptize about 4 new disciples a week. Most of them immediately start witnessing to others and baptising new disciples. I will put my 30 yrs experience (similar to Steve Simms) up against anyones theories any day.

  31. If you enjoyed the interview you might like to see Gloria Gaither’s review of “Beyond Church” that was published in the May/June 2016 issue of the Gaither’s “Homecoming Magazine” @ https://stevesimms.wordpress.com/2016/05/23/gloria-gaither-reviewed-beyond-church/

  32. I have been to many Sunday School classes and Bible studies where people share off the top of their heads ideas that are unbiblical and uninspired and there is a place for such meetings. If Sunday morning worship becomes that place then there remains need for a place where the gospel is proclaimed and the Scripture taught by those who have those proclaiming, teaching gifts and who have prepared through study and prayer to share Truth.

    • I can’t find anywhere in the New Testament where the gospel is preached in the church. Jesus gave very implicit instructions which were “Go INTO ALL THE WORLD and preach the gospel. Most people don’t go into the next street let alone the world as we have substituted Jesus instruction for our own take on things as in “go into all the church…”

    • What are the duties of a shepherd? They include: leading the sheep to healthy, green grass; steering them away from poisonous plants; and protecting them from predators.

      The duties don’t include force feeding or carrying them around so that nothing is required of them except to breathe.

      There is a place for prayerful study and teaching. And there it’s a place for sharing. The shepherd’s job is to make sure that it’s Biblical and when it isn’t, to lead the group back to the truth.

      Far too many gatherings of the body have become lectures, in that, the person in charge is the only voice and gets quite put out if anyone else tries to share.

  33. Here’s a YouTube video of a song about the interactive worship style we use at Berry Street: Here are the lyrics:

    “When we’re together
    You’re here with us,
    We feel Your presence,
    We see Jesus.
    Your Spirit leads us
    To share our heart,
    One another,
    Each does their part.”

    “One starts a song;
    One gives a testimony;
    One says a prayer;
    We’re all God’s symphony.”

    We are all one
    In Christ the Son,
    Simple people
    Tell what God’s done.
    Your Spirit teaches,
    Not through just one,
    But through us all,
    Sharing the Son.

  34. Gloria Gaither reviewed my book “Beyond Church” in the current issue of “Homecoming Magazine.” Here’s the link: http://www.homecomingmagazine.com/article/gloria-s-library-mayjune-2016/


  1. Preaching’s not enough says a $1.00 book . . . | Free Gas For Your Think Tank (A blog to jog your mind and unclog your heart . . .) - May 21, 2016

    […] See these ideas in action at The Salvation Army Berry Street, 225 Berry St., Nashville 37207 on Sundays @ 10:45 am. Check out this interview where I share about the way we meet at Berry Street. […]

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