Friday, 1 May 2009

On sermons: a rant

A guest-post by Aaron Ghiloni

I know preaching. For four long years in Bible college I heard 14 sermons each week. Count ’em:

  • 1 at Sunday morning church
  • 1at Sunday night church
  • 1 at Monday morning chapel
  • 1 at Wednesday morning chapel
  • 3 at Wednesday night church (the pastor’s son tended to fit at least this many sermons into one go)
  • 1 at Friday morning chapel
  • 6 in Homiletics courses throughout the week (where the homiletical advice was – and honest to Jehovah, I’m quoting verbatim – “If you’re not sweating you’re not preaching!”)
  • I’m not even counting listening to Jack Hayford and Chuck Swindoll on the radio each night.
Since then, as I’ve wandered through sundry denominations, I’ve heard the sermon in nearly all its forms: a 15 minute homily is far too long, while a 45 minute “message” is plainly unanointed. A lifetime pulpit pounding and sanctified lecturing has led me to one obvious conclusion: 

There should be a moratorium on the sermon. Let’s go straight from the Gospel to the Creed and cut the drivel in between. I may have heard fourteen sermons a week in Bible college, but I don’t remember the one I heard last week.

Preaching puts me to sleep which, by my definition, is the last thing preaching should do. The sermon should be revelatory – generating ambiguity, disrupting expectation. (Okay, so I stole this from Rowan “Ray-of-Darkness” Williams, but since this rant is about sermons, stealing someone else’s ideas is acceptable.) But, in fact, we already know exactly what to expect – fifteen minutes of nothing. Edward Schillebeeckx says the service of the word should be like the “roaring of the lion” – it is more like the yawning of a sloth.


Ironically, most preachers genuinely believe they are above-average public speakers. (They can’t all be right, can they?) And as Gabriel Moran notes, most preachers also believe that all theology is homiletically-centered. Demurring, he says: “Probably only a clergyman could believe that preaching is a good model, let alone the best model, for understanding the religious life of mankind. It would be a near impossibility to find any non-clergymen who think of preaching and sermonizing as significant at all. Most people who give a thought to it conclude that preaching is an anachronism which is allowed existence because it bothers no one. However, if one’s professional life is centered on any activity, it is possible to view the whole world in light of that endeavor.”

Preach it, Brother!

Each brand of Christianity has its own formulas, but here is the structure of a typical, Anglo-mainline sermon:

First, a joke. (Most likely the joke is taken from internet or, if the preacher is retired, from Reader’s Digest. Most likely the main character in the joke is a religious person, and in all likelihood a member of the clergy.)

Second, a repetition of what has already been testified to the Scripture readings. (At this point the congregation is silently wondering how a sermon that started off so witty got so boring so quickly.)

Third, an unacknowledged regurgitation of the latest book the preacher feels proud of having read (connection to Scripture texts will be vague; connection to joke will be nonexistent).

Fourth, clichés. That’s how it always ends.


Clichés, truisms, platitudes – no sermon is complete without them. If the structure of a sermon is clichéd, than the content and delivery of the sermon are all the more clichéd. There are many sorts of clichés packed into one sermon.

First, there are the pious clichés. They’re credal: God is love; God loves you; Jesus loves you; this church (no, this “community”) loves you; change is coming; everything is holy; be astonished at small graces; be ready for change which, after all, is coming because God loves you. We have a passé theology.

Next, there are the anecdotal clichés. These are easy to spot: they inevitably put the preacher into a tight situation in which he, after a protracted struggle, is proved a hero. A story about one’s kids is common too, but never as homiletically reliable as the first-person tall tale. We have a religion of anecdotes.

Finally, there are the rhetorical clichés. You know them: the feigned eye contact; the “practical turn” where we find out what it all means in “real life”; the open-ended question; three points and a poem; alliteration; the comfy conviction (being somber helps church people relax). We have an unimaginative art.

Oh, now I remember: the last sermon I heard was the one I gave. (I had to end with an anecdote about me.)


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