Saturday, December 12, 2009

What's the Good Word?

I think I’ve heard more different preachers since I retired than during all the years I was pastor of a church. It’s been very interesting and even instructive to have the view from the pew for a change. I still preach from time to time filling in for vacationing friends, but being among the congregation has its particular blessings.

Someone once said in my hearing, “Sermons are intimate conversations with people you love.” I’m sure that isn’t an exhaustive description of preaching, but it’s not a bad starting point.

Sitting out in front of the preacher I’ve noticed that some sermons do not live up to that saying.

Sometimes the sermon is not a conversation at all, but a monologue, a lecture, a lengthy exegesis. I tend to tune out when the preacher is talking to the air, floating on abstractions, and hardly looking at me or anyone else around me. I’d welcome a conversation, and like most conversations that are worth having, it should have something to do with me, with the state of my soul, with my relationship to God, with the purpose of my life. The sermon should, in a word, be relevant—not only to current events, but to my life and my struggle to make it a Christian life.

I’d just as soon the preacher wouldn’t load the sermon with quotes either. Bringing in a direct quote from some theologian or devotional writer, or even the next door neighbor, is bringing a third party into the conversation. It can be a real distraction. Preachers are supposed to be able to work with words—they should translate the quote into their own words, make it their own. We all need to remember that most quotations don’t mean nearly as much to the listener as they do to the quoter.

A friend told me that he attended Riverside Church in New York when Harry Emerson Fosdick was pastor there. It’s a cavernous room, and it was jammed with people spilling out into the aisles. When Fosdick mounted the pulpit and began to preach, my friend felt that he and Fosdick were the only two people in the room. Now, that’s preaching.

If the sermon is about real life, and about the Good News of God’s love, it will be both tender and firm. That’s where the intimacy comes in. The Word preached reaches out to touch us where we hurt, to soothe the sore spots. The Word preached also pokes and prods to move us where we’d just as soon not be bothered to go. The old saw is right: “Good preaching comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.” All of this preaching is dared because there is a love relationship between preacher and preachee, a love that is bestowed not by either, but by God.

Some have said that preaching should be recognized as the Third Sacrament, and there’s something to that. In the act of preaching, both speaking and listening, Christ becomes present. That’s why, in the old days, we were told to wear black robes, in order to keep ourselves unobtrusive, in the background, so the Christ present could be out front for all to recognize.

Not all preachers I’ve come across, I’m sad to report, do this well. A few—I like to think just a few—play the part of being a preacher. The sermon is a performance. It’s designed to impress the “audience.” One of the worst sermons I’ve ever heard was from a handsome, eloquent, 8x10 glossy preacher who put on a great show. There just wasn’t anything there.

At the same time one of the worst “performers” I’ve seen as far as presentation goes, was a preacher who spoke from his heart to the hearts of everyone in the room. It was almost like Jesus was there with us. It was what he said, not how well he said it, that counted.

I’ve become more critical of my own preaching as a result of my post-retirement church-going. Surely that’s not a bad thing.

If you’re a preacher, how often do you get to hear others? What do you learn about your craft when you do? If you’re on the other side of the pulpit, what do you look and listen for in a sermon? Do you ever talk with your minister about it?


  1. I welcome the discipline and art of preaching, and I agree completely that it's better for the pastor to love the congregation. I also think there are times when a guest preacher can be effective, and he or she may not know the congregation well enough to love them. The Holy Spirit blows/ reaches out/ cajoles where it wills.

    Although I think a string of quotes in any given sermon can be a distraction (How many? 4 or 5?), I think some quotes are helpful. I'm humble enough not to presume to improve upon MLK, and sometimes we borrow stories or analogies and should credit the source. (I had Tom Long as a prof. and he was very adamant against sermon stealing- I have to concur.)

    I think most of us who preach are keenly aware that a sermon could succeed or fail- and the relationship between the preacher/pastor and faith community is so much more than any given sermon. I think of holding hands with the choir in prayer before we enter the sanctuary. Or seeing a member who had just lost a loved one or been ill and recalling a pastoral visit or funeral. Preaching is indeed contextual, and the context is very full, and some of it is unknown to us.

    Sermons achieve different things. I believe in solid exegetical process- though some of the work (maybe much of it), appears behind, not in, the sermon. There are times, however, when a sermon might rightly share elements with Bible study. About quarterly, I do the exegesis, prepare notes, step into the congregation, and the preaching is truly a conversation. (I call it Campesino Style, and I got it from the work of Ernesto Cardinal.)

    We agree that slick is not good. Whatever the style, it needs to be authentic.

  2. Thanks, Donna, once again for your response. I don't really disagree with anything you said--I think we're on the same page.

    Of course, there is no excuse for shoddy exegetical work--it shows when it's not done diligently. That is not, all by itself, enough.

    Also, we should certainly take sermonic opportunities to teach the Bible--yet, that is itself built on the foundation of on-going Christian education for all ages.

    I would, however, amplify one part of what I said--about the preacher loving the congregation (and vise versa). The love of which I speak is agape, and does not depend so much on the relationship between the preacher and the congregation as it does on God's gift of love for them both.

    It is out of that love given in Jesus Christ, the Word-made-flesh that we preachers have the bald audacity to stand up in front of others and proclaim God's Word. We do that because we know above all else, it is God's love that brings us together--we are there because God in Jesus Christ has called us. Furthermore it is God's Word (Jesus Christ)which/who is to be spoken, heard and shared.

    There are a number of contexts for preaching, and the pastoral relationship is certainly an important, maybe essential, one. But even that is founded on the relationship between God and the people forged in the birth, life, death,resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ.

    Finally, regarding style: There are as many different effective styles as there are preachers. The trick for any preacher, I think, is finding one's true, authentic style. Imitating another's style is a dead-end street. Being oneself may not make you or me to be as eloquent or charming as the preachers we admire, but it is almost a sure thing that if we are just us, the sermons will ring true.

  3. Thanks for this article on preaching. It is a good reminder of what we are about. No doubt it is too easy for some of us to wander into a theological analysis instead of doing the additional work to move to true homiletics. Your article sparked my thinking and I gave my whole sermon on the incarnation (God becoming a child in Christ) in the aisle with a body mike. All I had in my hand was a notecard and that turned out to be a prop. It was well received and the people listened closely. As Barth said, real theology is not purely an intellectual exercise but analogia relationis.


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