Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Six Things I Listen for in a Sermon

As someone who has preached for over 44 years, and one who has taught preaching along with writing numerous articles and blogs on the topic of preaching, you may think that I am tough on preachers and a harsh critic of their sermons.  Actually, I am not.  I approach the sermon in an expectant manner. 

First, I am eager to hear God’s word expounded.  I can and often have already read the scriptures for the day.  I want and look forward to the preacher’s expansion of the text(s).

Second, I want to be open to what God has to say to me through the sermon and the “me” can also mean “us” as a member of a congregation.  

Third, I hope to learn something.  

Fourth, I want to hear the good news proclaimed.   

 Here are the 6 things that I listen for in a sermon.  I don’t expect every sermon to have all of these, but I listen for them and I think others may be also.

First, I listen for an invitation into the preaching event
I want the preacher to engage me in some way.  Often a simple question can do this, for example, “What could Jesus have meant when he asked people to come and follow him?”  The invitation can also come as a narrative or story at the beginning that sets the tone and theme of the sermon. For example,  “The other day while in Walmart, I watched a mother stand completely helpless at the temper tantrum of her toddler. I’ve been there.”  I even find a vivid retelling of a parable or teaching a great introduction.  After all, Jesus’ sermons and teachings were often great stories. 

There are some things I don’t find helpful.  I don’t find an explanation of why “these three scriptures” were chosen for today remotely interesting.  I don’t find a humorous story or illustration useful if it doesn’t introduce and serve the sermon.  I don’t find complicated explanations about complex passages and what words really mean in Greek very engaging.  In short, I listen to hear why this sermon is important.

Second, I listen to whether the preacher has done his or her homework
Here I have a bias.  I notice that a lot of Episcopal clergy are topical preachers.  By this I mean they find a topic or issue or subject in a text and proceed to preach on the topic and not what the text means, or why it is there, or why it is being read.

For example, when Jesus said, “I am the bread of life” it may raise an interesting topic about the metaphor bread and what bread represents and can mean, but I want to know why he said it, or at least why John said he said it, and not about the art of bread making or the preachers attempt at baking break and what the preacher learned from it.  I want to know that the preacher has engaged the passage and its meaning. This comes from prayerful and scholarly engagement with the Scriptures.

Third, I listen for the big story
Christianity is about life and death.  It is about the big questions and issues that make living, loving, and even pain and suffering meaningful, so preach on this.  I don’t really care about the arcane of faith such as the colors of the Church Year or the trivia of the bible.  I listen hungry for meaning. Just as our culture often overloads us with mounds of data, some preachers seem more interested in the data of scripture or theology instead of its meaning. 

Fourth, I listen for to the content AND the delivery
A sermon is oral communication and as such it has two important dynamics that of content and delivery.  Episcopal clergy are fairly smart people, but we are also at times boring.  When I do teach preaching and evaluate sermons, I use these two scales.  First is content. Does the preacher have something to say?  Second, I ask has the preacher said it effectively?  Can the preacher communicate beyond mere words?  Effective delivery helps people listen.   Many of us have become so predictable in our form of preaching, what Fred Craddock called “Explain, Explore, Apply,” that we lull our congregations into passivity by our predictability.   Rhetoric is not a bad word, and learning to communicate effectively with its different rules and forms is a blessing to our listeners. 

Fifth, I want to leave knowing what the preacher intended to say
This is what Craddock called the sermonic sentence.  This is a one sentence or one phrase summary of the sermon that preachers should use to organize their thoughts.  This sentence may or may not actually be used in the sermon, but after hearing a sermon, we listeners should be able to say in one sentence the point of what we heard.  Of course, we all know of moments when God has spoken to us directly in a sermon beyond what the preacher intended, but poorly formed and badly organized sermons should not be justified by such anecdotal moments. 

Lastly, I want to hear good news!
I want to be encouraged, helped, and even inspired in my life in Christ.  I hear enough from our culture about sin, death, shame, suffering, humiliation, the vain pursuit of material things, and the evils of our world and of our own lives.  I want to hear what God in Christ has set right!  I want to leave believing my life matters and that faith enables me to face the world with courage and hope. 

I know we are unloving.  I know we are polluting the earth.  I know black lives matter. I know there is injustice in our world at every turn. I know we are indifferent to important causes and issues.  I know the world and our culture and lives are going to hell in a hand basket.  But I also know Christ and for Christians “to live is Christ and to die is gain” as Paul said.  Preaching is at the heart proclamation not condemnation.  Does good preaching sometimes convict us?  Of course it does, but even then it leads us to forgiveness, amendment, and a new life.  And when hurting, depressed, wounded, discouraged and weak, I want to know “there is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.” I listen for the good news that always brings with it hope. 

Hey fellow preachers, let’s make 2017 a year in which we improve the quality of our preaching!