Thursday 30 April 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.)


Adam Kotsko said...

If the sermon/homily was abolished, I might seriously consider going to church every week.

Anonymous said...

Some people get bored by sermons; therefore, the church needs to take a break from giving sermons. Assuming you aren't actually suggesting that (after all, many people think their pastors give great sermons), I think this post is great.

Terry Wright said...

I do believe that God speaks through the preacher, but a lot of the time I find it difficult to believe that he speaks so predictably. Even more difficult for me is to believe that God needs to speak for thirty minutes or so to get his point across!

kim fabricius said...

Hey, Aaron, thanks a shedload for the juxtaposition of your post. I was going to have porridge for breakfast, but now I think I'll have tongue instead - my own!

As for Dr. Myers (henceforth, surnames only), thanks for the set-up - the sting - you bastard!

Anonymous said...

I wish the loudmouth "preaching" at my upcoming wedding (which of course includes the mandatory screed against same-sex marriage - I am NOT planning the church part, and neither is she, her parents are the family fundies) could hear this. He thinks that an hour sermon is maybe a bit too short. Hopefully he can keep the focus on something other than his sermon at our wedding!

Hell, I used to sit under a "preacher" who thought an hour and a half was too short - he was just getting warmed up by then. He preached verse by verse through 1 John for at least a year. That means that each week he would yell for an hour and a half about a single verse! And it was bad, bad, bad.

kim fabricius said...

Btw, great graphic of Orson Welles as Father Mapple in John Huston's '56 film version of Moby-Dick. You want a rant? Here is Melville's Mapple - with what the Welsh call hwyl:

"This, shipmates, this is that other lesson; and woe to that pilot of the living God who slights it. Woe to him whom this world charms from Gospel duty! Woe to him who seeks to pour oil upon the waters when God has brewed them into a gale! Woe to him who seeks to please rather than appal! Woe to him whose good name is more to him than goodness! Woe to him who, in this world, courts not dishonor! Woe to him who would not be true, even though to be false were salvation! Yea, woe to him who, as the great Pilot Paul said, while preaching to others is himself a castaway!"

Micky said...

I'm torn between cheering and resigning! I think ending a sermon is the most challenging bit - sometimes I'm tempted to use the phrase 'So There!' but perhaps more mature would be - 'So what are you going to do about it....?'

Mark Stevens said...

Aaron, as one who has travelled a very similar road to you I can understand where you are coming from. However, at this point in my life I am on another side of the argument. As one who was a Pentecostal pastor and now serves as a minister in a mainline tradition, let me say - I am sorry! I am sorry my sermons do not live up to your expectations. Each week I do the best I can, no, I do better than that. I seek to be faithful to the text, to the community and most of all to Christ. The only part of your post I take umbrage at is your attempt to lump all of us in the same pulpit! Please show some respect to those of us who faithfully give of our time to point people to God; to people who do want to hear sermons. I don't try and manipulate people, I am not trying to build a ministry or a church. Each Sunday I try as best I can to point people to Christ! People who may or may not have been thumped over the head with cheap stories or shallow biblical reductionism. As I said before, I do my best.

(I honestly mean this with respect and I am sorry if any of it sounds harsh, shallow, or defensive. The internet is a terrible way to communicate a response sometimes ;-) )

Hoover said...

I figure that I ate on average about 21 meals a week while I went to college and I have continued at the same pace since then. Like you, I can't remember the one last Sunday morning.

Somehow, I think that if I declared a moratorium on those meals, I would suffer...

In fact, you might say I would eventually become undernourished.

Andy said...

It is a crime that this post follows Kim's brilliant homily.

Saint Egregious said...

I find the theological arrogance of this post utterly astounding. As if god can't speak loudly and clearly from the lips of a dead dog, much less a scaredy cat preacher! Read a little Barth for Christ's sake!
If, dear man, you had admitted at the outset that the problem is your own, you cold heart and uncircumcised ears, I might be willing to acknowledge that a lot of preaching out there leaves something to be desired. But the suggestion that you have 'heard it all' merely indicates you are not yet listening, and are wallowing in self-pity and resentment over your religious upbringing. These are hardly cardinal virtues! You are spiritually sick, my brother. And the disease is most likely ROORF (Religion-of-Origin-Reaction-Formation), causing you to limp pathetically along with a God you can neither love nor hate. You seem to resent him the many many hours he pleaded to have your heart, soul and body as His own. You are bored with God my boy, and that is the greatest theological sin of all.
Fish or cut bait, and you may find your ears opening up again to the glorious word, hidden under even the most routinized of liturgies, the most tawdry of homiletical words--what, after all, is more banal than a man tortured and left for dead under the shadow of empire?
Put your arms down, brother, and wake up!

P.S. Of course, I could be utterly, sinfully wrong if I imagine any of this applies to you, Aaron. We preachers do, unfortunately, labor under the illusion that others suffer the same spiritual maladies as ourselves, and given the polite smiles and sycophantic pieties we are forced to endure Sunday after Sunday after Sunday (at least 14 hours a week, in fact!), we may perhaps be forgiven for our tendency to tilt at well-guarded windmills. I trust that if I am wrong, you have developed plenteous resources to keep my words well out of heart's-ground. I only pray that God's true and life-giving Word will, in spite of the banality of words our poor souls have been forced to endure, will worm its way through. That would be worth all the effort.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that there are lots of very good, engaging preachers out there that don't follow the formula's that you are indicating. James Macdonalds, Alistar Beggs, John Piper, Matt Chandler... just to name a few.

I think that the problem may be that you're listening (and according to the end of your post... being) crappy preachers. Just like all things under the sun... people are good at it, and (unfortunately the majority) are bad at it. That doesn't mean we should just abolish it.

Ben Myers said...

For what it's worth, I take it that the post is a (playful rather than bitter) attack on bad, thoughtless and spiritless preaching, rather than a projection of Aaron's own troubled psyche. (And if anyone should feel bad, it's me, since I myself have preached in Aaron's parish, obviously without making a big impression...)

But the fact that there is also such a thing as good preaching should be clear enough already from the post's juxtaposition with Kim's homily and with Melville's wonderful Father Mapple (whose sermon in Moby-Dick is, for my money, one of the greatest moments in the whole history of preaching).

Evan said...

I am neither a preacher nor the son of a preacher, but I do find it interesting that posts like this tend to come from people who go to Bible colleges (the theological blogosphere is veritably crawling with such émigré populations). I guess I see the same sort of thing in the opposite direction from ex-mainliners or ex-Catholics, but such critiques strike me as more of a need to own some sort of unique distance from one's heritage, rather than as anything especially substantive.

roger flyer said...

Did I miss the joke in Kim's sermon?

Did you hear the one about the Welsh emergent pastor? He's on the 18th hole when a storm comes up. St Peter says...

roger flyer said...

St E-
Sheesh! You got some shamin' going on.
He already fessed up: It's a rant.

Anonymous said...

It would be interesting to hear responses from those of us who hear lay preaching on a regular basis. I find that this ministry restores the power of a sermon, even as the rhetorical and exegetical skills of the lay preacher are often lacking.

Anonymous said...

So the solution to bad preaching isn't good preaching, but rather no preaching? That's like so many Americans who believe the to solution to bad religion isn't good religion, but no religion. Shall we apply the same logic to government? To friendships? To families?

St egregious said...

no shame in my game, roger dogger. It's anaiskuntia all the way down!

Dan said...

heh heh... hmmmm i wonder if this is what the esteemed apostle, Paul was trying to convey in his critic of the sermon... "the foolishness of preaching..."

now to end in that venerable fashion of an anecdote about me: i'll know it's time to hang up my preaching licenses when i fall asleep during one of my own sermons!

Josh said...

"There should be a moratorium on the sermon. Let’s go straight from the Gospel to the Creed and cut the drivel in between."

While this piece calls for "a moratorium on the sermon," it's really a critique of a certain kind of preaching. While I've heard (and preached) many forgettable sermons, I've also heard a fair amount of preaching that does not fit the stereotype described here. The irony of the specific criticisms mentioned is that in many cases they themselves have become cliches. I heard most of them years ago from multiple professors in seminary.

Somewhere David Bartlett has defined preaching as the interpretation of Scripture. The Creed, too, is an interpretation of Scripture. Perhaps instead of going " the Creed" we could see the sermon and the Creed as complementary--or, in some cases, competing--interpretations of the same story. The sermon may helpfully be understood as a contemporary footnote or appendix to the Gospel and the Creed.

Also, preaching today is countercultural. In a sound-bite world, listening to a sermon (even for just 15 minutes) requires a kind of attentiveness that is increasingly rare. The sermon not only teaches (when done well), but also trains people to do what was commanded at the Transfiguration--listen. And listening can only help us navigate a shrinking world in which the other is more and more likely to be our neighbor.

That said, in my own ministry, I have come to prefer teaching to preaching--dialogue to monologue.

Aric Clark said...

This post is a good chuckle, but not very useful. In fact, it is itself cliched, shallow, and predictable.

The problem begins from the very first sentence in which he says "I know preaching" and goes on to demonstrate the very opposite by ranting about the outward form, but nothing of the substance.

Who would think a similar rant about the eucharist was anything but foolish - it's the same every week, tired cliches about spiritual food and heavenly foretastes and opening of eyes... The gestures are melodramatic, the bread and wine are cheap and tasteless, we all go through the motions like robots, it doesn't mean anything to anyone... Do we meet Jesus Christ at the table or not?!

Behind the inadequacy of the preacher and the predictability of our tried and true tropes lies the power of the Living Word bringing a fresh message every time. We must prepare to be addressed - not by the preacher, but by Jesus Christ.

Yes, there is an abundance of horrible preaching out there and we preachers have no excuse for not doing our best every single time, but ultimately it isn't up to us. Ultimately we believe that we can still hear a fresh Word from the Spirit or we don't.

Word and Sacrament are one and the same. Either we believe Jesus Christ is in them - and then it doesn't matter if the minister is skilled - or we think the thing depends on the form and then it is just a bunch of worthless hand waving and incantations, impotent magic performed by clowns.

Josh said...


Well said.

Anonymous said...

The point is praxis, preachers.
Less talk, more love, more action.

Anonymous said...

A great thread to read. I heard of some saint (who??) who would read his sermons in monotone but they still resulted in mass repentance and conversion. So there is a component here to what the Spirit is doing. Luckily for me, at my current parish (Catholic) the priest is explaining to the congregation that salvation is for everyone, particularly the people they don't think it's for, like athiests, Non-Catholics, people who hate Jesus because Christians act like jerks, etc. I can't imagine that would be boring in any Christian Church.

Anonymous said...

@ the Praxis guy...

Orthopraxy without Orthodoxy is just as damaging (I'd say MORE damaging in the long run) as Orthodoxy without Orthopraxy.

The answer is that far too many of our "preachers" are soft and watered down. You could go into 80% of the churches in the world today on a Sunday, and not hear anything about sin or grace... THAT is why preachers are not worth hearing about.

If we preach the Gospel, the orthopraxy will fall into place as a response to genuine repentance... however if we simply urge people to act without teaching them WHY we act, we will simply produce more people who will hear "Away from me, I never knew you."

roger flyer said...


Your orthodoxy sounds like the Mark Driscolldoxy. Sic em Halden!

Jake Belder said...

If you're in America, chances are that book the preacher has read in point three is an autobiography of some heroic sports figure, likely Tony Dungy.

::aaron g:: said...

It has been interesting to read the various interpretations of my little rant.

The only response I wish to make is that although this post is critical it is also self-referential.

Anonymous said...

@ Roger Flyer

How so?

roger flyer said...

Hi TA-

You said:
"Orthopraxy without Orthodoxy is just as damaging (I'd say MORE damaging in the long run) as Orthodoxy without Orthopraxy."

My conclusion is that orthopraxy
(right practice) comes from a more 'generous' orthodoxy (right belief) than orthodoxy as expressed in the 'evangelical' book.

That is to say--

1/ I don't believe the trouble is that preachers are 'watering down' or 'softening' the clear message.

2/ Could it be that orthodoxy isn't what evangelicals think it is?

In an earlier post, you referenced John Piper as a preacher to listen to. Could he be mistaken and a talented 'preacher' at the same time?

Anonymous said...

Sure he could... I don't think he is... but he could be.

My point is that far too often preachers don't preach about sin (something that Scripture is clear exists and needs to be addressed) and you can't preach the Gospel of our salvation without preaching about what we're being saved from.

Tim said...

Yes, but preachers have one thing theologians lack: an audience.

kim fabricius said...

Vice-versa, TA.

Paul Fischer said...

"As soon as you hear the pastor say, 'Now, as my son Charles told me the other day', you just know you're fixing to hear bullshit."

- Stanley Hauerwas

BTW, Kim, what did you mean by "vice versa" in response to TA? I confess I'm confused.

I understood the humorous angle of the post, but I think too many of us in the pews treat the sermon like it's an oral examination, when our attitude should be prayerful expectation to see how God will speak through the pastor's words.

Oh...oh DAMN! Karl Barth already beat me to that insight with the new leading post. He's such a smart ass.

kim fabricius said...

... you can't preach the Gospel of our salvation without preaching about what we're being saved from - vice-versa.

Fat said...

I grew up with the three part sermon:
First ya tell em what ya gunna tell em
Then ya tell em
Then ya tell em what ya told em
and seriously it ain't all bad.

I can remember a few torture sessions (not necessarily the longest either) but mostly the congregation was inspired and worship was enhanced rather than interrupted.

Anonymous said...

Maybe it's because I have been reading Kierkegaard lately, but this whole post struck me as a piece of irony. But, mabye I am wrong. ;)


michael jensen said...

Poor God... the only preachers available are human beings...

and I speak as a preacher AND the son of a preacher.

Beal said...

@ Aaron:

“Preaching puts me to sleep”
Sounds like you have never heard good preaching….

“Probably only a clergyman could believe that preaching is a good model”
And Jesus, and Paul, and Peter, et al….

Preaching is how people get saved: "For since in the wisdom of God, the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of what we preach to save those who believe" (1 Corinthians 1:25). And we all know of tons of other verses to substantiate that assertion as well.

If you don’t like preaching, why are you in ministry? How do you square with all of the imperatives in the New Testament to preach?

Anonymous said...

I think Kim's trying to say that we can't preach about sin without preaching the Gospel, which I also think is true.

Without Sin... there wouldn't be any need for the Gospel, and without the Gospel... Sin is just despair.

Mike W said...

The senior minister at my last church used to come to me before I preached and say "If it's no good, make it short"
Best advice I got

roger flyer said...

I have not preached in a church pulpit for a couple years (I miss it, but I doubt the listeners do.)

I have been invited to 'supply' the pulpit a couple times in Lutheran churches this Summer, which I am looking forward to. When I asked the pastor how long the sermons should be, he said 12 minutes. (In my tradition, 12 minutes is the warm-up joke...)

Twelve minutes is a homily, not a sermon. But a homily is what these folks will get, and a salvo of salvation at that.

Anonymous said...

Some sermons are memorable; some are not! If more lay people were allowed to preach, maybe more lay people would be more comfortable with evangelism. I like the approach some African ministries take. Don't tell the visitor he's preaching until the last minute. Then you really find out in what that person's reason for hope in Christ consists.

Anonymous said...

Christ is risen from the dead. Alleluia!
So then, why are Christian families afflicted by mental illness and even suicide?
Would that opening salvo wake up your congregation?
Jonathan Edwards even with his monotone voice was able to expound on biblical concepts of sin and salvation/healing to the benefit of his listeners. Too bad most denominations today don't encourage such direct no-nonsense preaching.

Tyler Wittman said...

Evan: " . . . such critiques strike me as more of a need to own some sort of unique distance from one's heritage, rather than as anything especially substantive."

I know those people. I think I've been one before. I may even be one now, unawares. Good thoughts, Evan.

Unknown said...

I agree with a lot of this. I do listen to Alistair Begg and he's very engaging, challenging, and very seldom is he shallow. But I also am in a different congregation every week (not shopping, I have a ministry that fills in for "worship leaders" as they need it), so I do hear the same sermon over and over.

And I agree that it's probably because we've got so "seeker sensitive" we don't want to offend anyone (unless they're gay, Hispanic, black, or middle-eastern), so they don't dive in deep enough to really engage our minds.

We need the Gospel, not some self-help seminar. We need conviction of the Spirit, not pithy anecdotes and feel-good sentiment.

Chandy said...

For all those of you who love sermons you have to admit that it is a severely idolatrous part of the average sunday experience. everything is bowed down to 'THE WORD'.

It's strange that we can go without the one thing that Jesus commanded us to do ie communion but insist on a preach.

I feel ill even thinking about it!

Dave Berge said...

@Jake Belder

Quit being such a theo-snob. Tony Dungy rules.

Unknown said...

I'm a bit late to the discussion - nevertheless, I think Aaron has a point.

Particularly, I see the sermon as a singular barrier to an authentic experience of the Gospel. So much of Christianity - especially protestantism - is inherently rationalistic in quality that it neglects altogether the sacraments as a means of grace. Persons who lack the skills of rhetorical comprehension and logical / rational reception of the "message" are left out to dry (particularly those whom we classify as mentally handicapped) in most churches today because the sermon dominates the "church service" and, to make matters worse, most pastors probably don't believe in the efficacy of either proclamation or the sacraments to bring about anything more than what Christian Smith has called "moralistic therapeutic deism." In short, preaching is superfluous - unless, of course (like Calvin) one views it as having a sacramental quality. In that case, Aquinas' idea of the incorruptibility of the eucharist when administered by a corrupt priest might well be applied to preaching. Unfortunately, I've suffered through far too many sermons which I would liken to a ride on the road to hell than a stroll through the celestial city.

Anonymous said...

My experience as an evangelical did not really lead me through any sacramental theology. It would be an interesting question to ask various people I have met through the years what their understanding of the word "sacrament" is.

Anonymous said...

While I readily admit that not everyone can preach well, I wonder how much of the problem in many churches is the pastor and not us? You have to admit, our society has changed and is much more oriented towards sound bites and banners running along the bottom of the screen while we're watching the news or some other program. Have we become too impatient or untrained to truly listen? Do we even know how to listen anymore without a buch of bells and whistles going off? I don't know, but I wonder...

Norman Jeune III said...

Great post! You're obviously a skilled practicioner in the art of sarcasm; it touches on something important, some chuckle and think about the main point, others get fired up because they fear it might apply to them, and a number of people just don't get it.

In fairness to the writer, who's been accused of an irreparably callous heart, and unresolved spiritual and emotional issues, I think the various reactions testify to the fact that he's touched on something here. I also think that many reacted negatively to this post because its received by some as an identity attack. Tell someone who preaches that preaching is questionable, and you're going to get a negative reaction.

The question is whether or not one can get past their identity attachments, make the move to a place where honest and critical self-reflection is possible, and then we might have a way forward beyond the cynicism of this post. It might be that we just have a lot of bad preaching out there and we need to avoid it, OR it might be that we have a bunch of people in the pulpit who are so self absorbed that when incisive critique does come we want to kill the messenger.

Sarcasm deals in generalizations, so offering counter-examples is not really the point. Perhaps allowing ourselves to feel a little bit of the sarcastic bite would go a long way for all of us (including myself) toward thinking about what the hell we're doing every week when we step into the pulpit.

Self-soothing mind games exist on both sides of any debate like this; its what we do when we can't cope with our brokeness and sin, but we're unwilling to give ourselves entirely over to God as an act of true surrender and death to self.

Anonymous said...

Damnit! Quit the egotistic rants, admit the church is fucked, and move on

Anonymous said...

I think we should embrace George Fox's perspective on all this...
Pastors shouldn't open their mouths unless they're darn sure the Lord has given you words to proclaim. If this means the congregation sits in silence for a while, so be it. Why are we so terrified of silence anyway? James seemed to be quite the fan.

Sean+ said...

Wow! Loved it. I don't actually do any of this, I am pleased/appalled to report. I know I'm not a very good preacher, rather a bad one in my estimation. And I don't preach quite like anybody else I have head before. It's more of a ten minute ramble with me getting simultaneously impassioned and logical. My congregation is not nearly big enough to be what is generally called "a small church," so it really is just me talking to a few friends. Standard homiletic technique seems very strained in such a setting. I doubt my sermons are any more memorable than the ones you describe, though.

-- Sean+

Anonymous said...

1 Corinthians 1:18-24
18* For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.
19* For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.
20* Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?
21* For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.
22* For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom:
23* But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness;
24* But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.

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