Readers of this blog have seen an emerging conversation on preaching recently. Jonathan Mitchican, Jordan Hylden, and Craig Uffman, all priests of the Episcopal Church, have offered some thoughtful reflection on the shape and texture of contemporary proclamation. Perhaps more significantly, they have diagnosed its condition, classified its symptoms, and prescribed treatments that both overlap and differ somewhat one from the other. Craig and Jonathan have since carried the conversation on to a much larger discussion about grace.
- Jonathan Mitchican, “How to preach sermons that don’t suck.”
- Jordan Hylden, “Grace, growth, and God’s dream: three types of sermons.”
- Jonathan Mitchican, “Grace, grace, and grace: how to battle Osteenism in our time.”
- Craig Uffman, “The Gospel ain’t about you.”
- Jonathan Mitchican, “The Gospel ain’t about you, but it is for you.”
Though I found much to agree with in these recent posts, I also found myself thinking that they left out most of what I think about preaching. The more I read, the more this conversation sounded like shoptalk or trade-show discourse.
What I have to say has everything to do with where I sit, in the pew. For most of us, sermons are neither written nor spoken, they are heard. Do you really want to know about the state of preaching? Ask the laity — we know better than any just how bad preaching is because we are the ones who listen to it.
For me, the sermon or homily really isn’t the point. It’s not even the high point of the Liturgy of the Word. Frankly, my expectations are low enough that I am rarely disappointed. If I took preaching as seriously as these recent posts have, I might have left the Church in disillusionment decades ago. For a time, I even took up reading the Psalms during the homily. I wasn’t brazen about it — I tried to hide it — and sometimes I even felt vaguely bad about doing it. It’s easy enough to agree with the broadside Jonathan advanced in his first post:
Let’s be honest, most sermons today are terrible …. They sound like bad imitations of high school book reports.
But sadly, the truth is a little worse than that — often enough, those are the good ones!
In the end, I decided to pass along my own two cents on preaching precisely because no one ever asks. No one ever seeks a layman’s advice on preaching well. Some of what I have to say agrees with the substance of the points made in previous posts and may even serve to amplify their points sometimes, but they also sound different and they may even serve as occasional correctives. They simply come from a different place. Accordingly, I’ve decided to say my piece without fitting my points to theirs, and to let others draw out the connections.
- Don’t swing for the fence. Give up on crafting an impressive and artistic sermon. Try instead for a merely serviceable or passable or tolerable one. The phrase “sermons that don’t suck” furnished a catchy title for Jonathan’s first post, but it also summarizes very aptly what I think preachers really should be trying to achieve.
- Don’t think of yourself as an expert, a hero, or some kind of special poet. Self-importance must surely count as some kind of footman in the devil’s entourage — don’t let him in. Remember, the training that counts isn’t seminary training but rather the Savior’s own yoke. If you are the saintliest person in your congregation, then you are truly to be pitied (but you probably aren’t). You are not a professional Christian addressing amateur Christians. You are only a herald, and you are addressing the saints. St. Augustine liked to call his congregation as “Your Holinesses.’”It’s usually translated as “reverend brethren” or something like it. If your tone doesn’t match his, then you may be thinking about yourself (and your congregation) all wrong.
- Your doctrine is not your own. Don’t make your sermons about your own take on what the Church really needs right now or about your own take on anything else. Contrary to what many of the clergy seem to believe, the basic story of Christianity isn’t hard to summarize at all. Teach and preach that. If what you’re preaching about couldn’t make it onto a list headed either “the Christian story” or “the Christian life,” then you shouldn’t be preaching about it.
- Keep it simple. Your preaching should proclaim the faith of the Church, not some finer points or theoretical reflections about that faith. Preachers of every stripe and color get into trouble because of this basic confusion — they forget what they’re supposed to be talking about. If you are branding or labeling different theologies in your sermons, laying out typologies, or suggesting broad outlines of theological tendency, then you have likely lost track of what you are supposed to be doing.
- Likewise, know only Christ and him crucified. Most of us love our grandparents. I know I love mine. But my grandfather isn’t going to save you (or me) from sin and death. Neither is yours. Limit the personal references to passing remarks.
- It’s supposed to be about the Bible. Your preaching should really depend on the Word that has just been proclaimed. I can probably count on my fingers the number of sermons that have left me with lasting insights (lasting because I can still recall them). All of those were simple, unpretentious but intelligent reflections on the lectionary readings.
- Challenge us. Don’t tell people that they are good enough as they are or that Jesus doesn’t want more from them. If you say this to us, you are lying or worse.
- Read up. Nobody writes good poetry without having read many, many good poems. And no one writes good sermons without reading or hearing many, many good ones. It surprises me how few preachers bother to read great preaching from the Church’s history. St. Augustine and St. John Chrysostom are among the best in the ancient Church. Start there. You won’t ever need to stop.
Taking preaching seriously can easily lead into preachers taking themselves too seriously. From where I sit, Mac Stewart’s recent reflection about the dangers of undue seriousness could register helpfully in this conversation (and serve as an excellent conversation starter in seminary classes on homiletics too). Those of you entrusted with this ministry should try to preach well and not badly. But do not strive to deliver a message for the ages. Strive only for an entirely derivative word on the day’s readings. Your goal should be an utterly anonymous sermon on the healing of the paralytic, or the Lord’s conversation with the Samaritan woman, or the calling of Abraham, the conversion of Paul, or whatever it is that the Bible is telling us about that day and whatever it is we are supposed to be remembering.
Dear Preacher, it’s not a high bar at all, and I am very forgiving. All I want to hear is passable reflection on Jesus or something to do with Jesus or on something to do with something about Jesus. I will be listening. (As ever.)
The featured image is “The Sermon” (1886) by Gari Melchers. It is held in the Smithsonian and is licensed under Creative Commons.