By Steve Schlossberg

My earlier contributions explained what we should avoid if we want to preach badly and tackled the question of preparation for a bad sermon. This part helps guide would-be bad preachers in some important strategies for placing themselves at the center of the sermon, where they belong.

Be Intelligent

If we expect anyone to listen to us, we need to give them a reason for doing so. Charisma, if you have enough of it, will usually suffice. In the absence of that, some demonstration of intelligence is usually necessary. For young preachers in our tradition, in which the sermon is preceded by as a many as four discrete Scripture readings, the first temptation is to write a sermon that fully accounts for all of them. That the four often have nothing directly, or sometimes even remotely, to do with each other is no obstacle to a Master of Divinity. That this makes the preacher’s work much harder than it needs be, and the sermon incalculably harder for the people to follow, is of no consequence to us. Our first task is to make a formidable impression.

Though it does occasionally happen that a couple of the readings are mutually reinforcing, good preachers find it more useful to remark when two lessons, ostensibly in agreement, are actually saying two very different things, for that can help to clarify one thing we hope to demonstrate that one of them is saying. And saying one thing per sermon is just about as much as most of our people can hear.


Over time, a good preacher can strengthen a congregation’s ability to hear more than one point per sermon. Though our preferred method is to deliver sermons with no point at all, the overwhelming temptation felt by a preacher fresh out of seminary is to teach the congregation everything we know. Far from being a display of vanity, this is usually a crime of passion: enthralled by what they’ve learned, novices are eager to share the wealth to which they’ve lately fallen heir. This is a tedious, occasionally somewhat patronizing but perfectly harmless excess, soon enough cured by exhaustion.

For a more seasoned preacher, the major temptation to resist is an untoward credulity when it comes to our faith. We cannot bear to be thought the least sophisticated person in the room, and one good way to appear knowing is to favorably compare ourselves to the biblical writers and those who naively take them at their word. That this is somewhat naive need not trouble us. The biblical writers’ naiveté need not be demonstrated; our people are willing to take that for granted. Our sophistication, on the other hand, is a matter of extreme doubt.

This is where critical scholarship, which is truly a gift to the responsible exegete, rushes to the aid of the irresponsible preacher. Digressing to disabuse the congregation of the fantasy that St. Paul wrote the letter to the Ephesians or that Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount helps our people grasp the essential fact that they are listening to someone who is not only smarter than a fundamentalist but courageous enough to admit it.

Drawing on a good education, a good preacher might well call attention, say, to the similarities and differences between the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain, remarking one or two of the differences between Matthew’s and Luke’s theological emphases, because recognizing these differences allows one or the other or both to be better heard and understood. Less interested in grappling with what Jesus is said to have said than in demonstrating that we’ve read the literature, however, we distinguish ourselves by pricking the bubbles of the Reactionaries or (as the case may be) the Revisionists who aren’t there to confute our characterizations of them, because we’ve long since driven them out of the flock.

Be Prophetic

One of the ministries of the Church is to identify and protest injustice. Biblically, the price for doing this is high: usually it cost the prophets their lives. In our time and place, prophetic preaching is unlikely to lead to martyrdom, but it may well lead, as Jesus promised it would, to the dividing of the household, the alienation of large numbers of your congregation, and quite possibly losing your job.

This is where angels fear to tread, and so do many otherwise good preachers. Temptations afflict us all, good and bad alike, though we are not all tempted by the same things. Good and bad alike, most of us meekly incline to tell our people what they would like to hear, because we would like our people to tell us what we would like to hear when they’re shaking our hands after the service. Other, braver preachers delight in deliberately offending their people, hurling hand grenades into the nave, toppling all their idols and exploding all their conceits. Such courage is most common among young curates: because they’re curates, they have no personal stake in the future of the congregation; because they’re young, they have yet to fully appreciate the value of a pension; because they conceive of themselves as prophets, they have no use for the flattery of others. Not altogether unlike the rest of us, they are perfectly capable of flattering themselves.

But older, wiser preachers know that we can have our cake and eat it too. The harsh words of the prophets and the hard teachings of Jesus are easy to preach, just as they’re easy to read, as long as we assume they’re addressed to someone else. If we’re clever enough with our rhetoric, we can hurl hand grenades into the nave and get complimented for our courage after the service — providing that we subtly encourage everyone in the nave to assume that we’re aiming our remarks at someone else.

And we are. We are certainly not addressing ourselves.

Be Humble

I don’t seriously mean that, of course. We will all be perfectly humbled when we die and rise again to meet our Maker. Meanwhile, the devout will be struggling to gain the lower foothills of holiness; meanwhile, the rest of us have to fake it as best we can.

This is where mimicking the devout, which is normally exhausting, can prove rewarding. One attractive habit of good preachers is that they seldom say you in a sermon. That is, instead of preaching down to their people, they are careful to number themselves among those who need to hear the word they proclaim. This is attractive because it’s apparently humble. They represent themselves as every bit as much in need of forgiveness, correction, and amendment of life as anyone else.

So much more often than they say you, they say we. Occasionally they may resort to saying I. In describing how a particular temptation might attack any ordinary person, for example, they offer themselves as Exhibit A. A personal disclosure of weakness or failure, they judge, can help their people recognize their own vulnerabilities and some of their own foibles, which might otherwise remain invisible.

If good preachers can speak of I, then so can we. One daring escape from the bondage of responsible preching is to shock your people by divulging a sordid chapter of your life in fascinating detail. Entertaining to all, edifying to none, these arresting displays of earthiness, far from demonstrating how a vice is more universal than our people might have imagined, represent your transgressions as uncommonly dramatic, unusually gutsy, and uniquely forgivable.

Most of us, however, are too painfully self-conscious to venture that degree of candor. What comes more naturally to most of us are public professions of self-pity. Because most churchgoers assume that their pastors work only one day a week, it would be edifying for them to know how poorly we are paid, how thankless our jobs, how lonely our vocation, and how heavy the crosses of the clergy. This can be done artfully, indirectly, such as by introducing as many sermons as possible by disclosing how difficult it was for you to write this one. Nothing could be more interesting to a diner, after all, than knowing how the sausage was made.

An even better use of I is to treat your people to anecdotal evidence of your spiritual maturity, wisdom, or sensitivity. Recalling how you once gave a good piece of advice to a poor soul in distress, or bravely suffered an injustice, or courageously resisted a temptation, naturally spotlights your handsomest features, which usually require some pointing out. The beauty of this is that, with the possible exception of having to remember the last time you resisted a temptation, it takes no imagination at all. It’s just you being you. Even the best preachers occasionally lapse into this, because none is perfectly humble, and few successfully comb every sermon clean of every nit of self.

Nor, probably, should they. There remains a tension, after all, felt by good preachers between two opposite but equally important poles. The first is the obligation they feel to disappear when they preach, to remove themselves from the sermon so that they don’t intrude between their people and the Word they hope to represent. Supposedly, this is why we wear vestments: not to single ourselves out for special attention, but to temporarily blot out or cover over any self-expression distractive from the altar and whom it represents.

That, for a good preacher, stands in tension with the congregation’s real, if sometimes overstated, need to know the person who preaches to them. We vest our preachers like monks but we don’t hood them like medieval executioners, because along with everything else a good pastor is doing in the pulpit, he or she is loving the people in the pews.

There are worse things than a completely impersonal sermon, but if good preachers can do better than that, so can we. When preaching holiness of life, charity to strangers, or the successful renunciation of racism, offer yourself as Exhibit A.

Close With a Prayer

This is the perfect complement to opening the sermon with a joke, which not only disassociates the sermon from everything that preceded it, but relaxes the minds of our people into a state of passivity — “Now for the entertainment portion of our program!”

But because it’s possible to tell a joke that actually introduces the subject at hand, it’s often safer to begin the sermon with a hearty “Good morning!” or, more piously, a short prayer. Anything we can do to bracket off the sermon as an extra-liturgical event reinforces the perception that what happens in the pulpit is as alien to what happens at the altar as it is to what happened at the lectern.

A closing prayer insinuates the second bracket and, even more helpfully, allows you to reiterate everything you just said, this time for the benefit of God, just in case he wasn’t paying attention.

One can only hope.

The Rev. Steve Schlossberg is rector of St. Matthew’s Church, Richmond, Virginia.

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