Who Needs a Sermon?

It never fails that when I am looking for something in particular, I manage to find something else I was looking for months ago.  Such is the case with interview notes I took in Colorado, Iowa, and Connecticut with 20-60 year old spiritual seekers.  These notes have been the missing piece in a puzzle that has frustrated me for the past three years.  They were part of the larger Seeker Study I did for the General Board of Discipleship, and they highlighted some interesting perspectives on preaching and proclamation.  These interviews — 71 in all asked non-church-affiliated Christian spiritual seekers to share their thoughts on the art of the sermon.  Two-thirds of the 71 interviews (48) were with women, and approximately the same percentage were Caucasian.  Twelve were of African-American, six of Korean, two of Puerto Rican, one of Japanese, and two of mixed ethnic heritage.  While this may not be overly important, there were some gender and racial/ethnic differences in responses — those these are correlative, not necessarily causative.  We discussed five questions:

  1. what is a sermon?
  2. what is a sermon for?
  3. what is the preacher’s role in preaching?
  4. what do you look for/desire/need from a sermon?
  5. what types of sermons speak to you in meaningful and/or transformative ways?

What is a sermon? — I expected many simplistic “what the preacher preaches” kinds of answers, but was very surprised to discover that most of the respondents had fairly thoughtful answers.  In short and in general, men were more interested in “truth,” in understanding God’s will and having clarity about right and wrong.  Women lean toward “guidance” and “meaning” rather than in answers and information.  However, among the racial/ethnic respondents, there tended to be a stronger belief in absolutes — that there is right and there is wrong, and that we need to know the difference.  Older respondents had a much higher desire to differentiate “right” and “wrong.”  Younger respondents were much more interested in meaning, relevancy, and defining positive life goals, than in questions of moralizing or absolute truth.  A sermon, at its best, should clarify, demystify, raise questions, and illuminate.  Where there are multiple readings and interpretations, a sermon should present them all fairly and objectively, with some guiding questions to help people make up their own minds.  Sermons that a dogmatic and declarative are the least appealing.  Absolutely no one likes sermons that state definitively, “this you must believe, or else!”  Sermons should be like topographical maps that help hearers explore — they should not be like prepackaged tours that lead only to predetermined destinations.

One interesting recurrent theme in the responses was discomfort and dislike of the current trend of “preacher as pal,” the kind of talk-show-host delivering the monologue in your living room. One quote that well represents this attitude is, “I want to be engaged by the message, not impressed with the messenger.”  The best sermons, it seems, are those that could be delivered by just about anyone — or even read in print.  Over half of the respondents said that what they didn’t like about sermons were the preachers, and a smooth, overly slick and professional delivery can be as great the kiss of death as a poor delivery.

Sixty-six of the 71 respondents said that they had no interest in “technological enhancements,” — that sermons did not benefit from PowerPoint or video or other modern devices.  Almost all said that technology could enhance the experience, but the majority found it distracting and all but two said that a poor use of technology was a sermon killer.

Respondents defined a sermon most often by stating what a sermon is not: a sermon is not a lecture.  a sermon is not a show.  a sermon is not a platform to show how smart the preacher is.  a sermon is not stand-up comedy.  a sermon is not a happy, feel-good “rah-rah” speech.  Culling through the pile of pages of responses, truly three recurrent threads emerge: A sermon is a reflection on God — it helps us think about God.  A sermon is a personal challenge — it raises a significant question about what it means to exist.  A sermon calls for some kind of response — it refuses to leave a person alone, but challenges some kind of change in thinking, believing, behaving, or living.

What is a sermon for?

Ultimately, a sermon serves a simple, very specific focus — to help people grow in their relationship with God and God’s creation, to understand God’s will and purposes, and to order their lives in productive, meaningful, and God-honoring ways.  Over and over again, those who love God but dislike “organized” religion say, “the sermon isn’t about us, but about us in relationship to God.”  One young man kept referring to “the God equation,” and said, “I am starved for anything that factors into the God equation — God + me + the world = why am I here?  I want to go be with people who are asking the same kinds of questions and are focused on the same kinds of answers.”  Almost three-quarters of the people I talked to align with this kind of thinking.  A sermon serves the purpose of helping people better understand God, better understand themselves, and better understand why God put them here in the first place.”  One fifty-something woman said, “I don’t have any question about God — I take as a given that there is a God.  I also believe in myself — I think therefore I am.  What I could never really get from church on a regular basis was, “So What?”  Why am I here?  What does God want from me?  Most churches I went to told me that my reason for being was to come to church, put money in the collection plate, attend Bible study and work in the kitchen whenever we had a supper.  If that’s why God put us here… well, God needs to get out more.”

What is missing in most sermons — according to this small sample — is challenge.  It is fine to offer comfort.  It is great to offer knowledge and understanding.  It is great to offer encouragement.  But for 80% of this group, unless a sermon is promoting change and growth and an active, tangible response, it fails to serve its purpose.  “I can listen to books-on-tape if I want innocuous self-help, I’m a good person kind of stuff.  I haven’t heard a sermon in the past few years that I couldn’t hear the exact same thing on a TV talk show with Dr. Phil or on talk radio.  It’s kind of like everything has sunk down to this superficial, low expectations level.”  Another person said, “It’s very simple for me.  I am really busy and I don’t feel like I have time to waste.  Anything I do, anywhere I go, I ask one question: what difference did this make?  If it made a difference, I go back; if it didn’t, I’ll go do something else.  That’s why I stopped going to church.  Sitting through worship on a Sunday morning didn’t make any difference — or rather, I should say, the difference it made depended on me, and I don’t need to go to church to develop a strong relationship with God and other Christians.  Anything I can do as well or better on my own, that’s how I’m going to do it.”

Sermons are means to ends, not ends in themselves.  Oner insightful young woman observed, “I never think in terms of ‘was that a good sermon?’  Just like if I fix a good meal I don’t think ‘that was a really good pan I cooked it in or that was a killer spatula I used.’  The implement isn’t the point.  What happens because of a sermon or Bible study is the point.  Sure, you want to use good tools, but the best tools in the world are wasted if what they produce is crap.”  The sermon is a tool.  The sermon is a resource for growth, development, and performance.  The sermon is never the point.

The Preacher’s Role in Preaching

Almost everyone agrees — if you really like the preacher, you tend to like what the preacher says.  But for some this is as much a danger as it is a positive.  “Too many people give over their responsibility for their own spiritual development to church leaders, and that is frightening,” shared one 60 year-old woman.  “When I was younger, I went to a church with a great preacher, and when he went to another church, we followed him.  We had no real connection to the church, we just liked this preacher so much.  One day he came into church and told us all that he lost his faith and that everything he’d told us for years was a lie.  It almost destroyed my faith.  I will never give another human being that much power again.  It took me year’s to realize that he was just a disillusioned man with his own opinion.”  A large number of people who love God and Jesus the Christ but not “church” reflect that they feel preachers “get in the way” too often — that many pastor’s bask in the spotlight and love being the center of attention.  This gets in the way of good preaching.

The preacher is pivotal.  Good preachers can make a sermon “work.”  But a good preacher is not just a good speaker or presenter.  At least half of the respondents shared that the best “sermon” they ever heard came from untrained, non-professionals.  Personal witness and testimony from other laity provided example after example of a “good” sermon.  Authenticity, personal impact, sharing the “concrete” rather than the “abstract,” being vulnerable, passion — these all factored into “powerful” sermons, and they were direct extensions of the preacher — clergy or lay.  The concept of “authenticity” came up in many conversations.  Preachers are paid to preach — it is their job.  There is a strong sense of, “do as I say, not as I do,” to the professional preaching practice.  “I am unimpressed by a preacher who preaches on tithing who doesn’t give, or a message on the importance of risk-taking missions from a preacher who’s never been on a mission trip.  I want integrity, and I want to be inspired by someone who is sharing from experience and personal conviction, not someone who reads about things in books,” complained on respondent.  One woman summed up many people’s thoughts by saying, “I want to forget that there is even a person up front speaking.  I want the narrative to sweep me up and suck me in.  I want to be so engaged by what is being talked about that it doesn’t matter who is saying it.  I want it clear, I want it simple, I want it compelling.  That is what is so amazing about Jesus as he is presented in the gospels.  It is almost as amazing what he didn’t say, as what he did.  He forced people to engage and work out things for themselves.”

The old “window, not a mirror” concept came to my mind many times during these interviews — that the pastor should seek to be transparent so that people might see through the words to God, and that we should be careful not to make the message all about us.  “I want to grow personally, but if I go to church it’s more than that — I want to grow in relationship to God and to become more closely who God wants me to be.  I stopped going to <church> because, while it was helping me be a “good person,” I don’t think it was helping me be a real Christian.  It kind of bugs me that the pastor of the church is so popular.  It really is all about him in <church>.  I want to find a church where it’s really all about God.”

What Do We Look For, Desire, Need From a Sermon?

Invitation, invitation, invitation — invitation to know God better, invitation to grow in faith, invitation to act on what we are hearing and learning.  “It’s like exercise — I know I need it, I know it’s good for me, but I also know I won’t do it regularly unless someone keeps after me.  I think of a sermon like that — the preacher is a kind of personal, spiritual trainer,” one young man commented.  Sermons need to challenge and require response of some kind.  A good sermons asks hearers to DO something.  Sermons should irritate in a positive way.  “I want a sermon to make me a little uncomfortable, to make me think – ‘hey, there’s something I should be doing that I’m not,’ or ‘I could be doing better in this part of my life.’  Most of the churches I have been part of have been so scared to make anyone uncomfortable for fear they would leave, that I can’t remember the last time I was challenged.

Practical knowledge and transformative wisdom.  “I don’t know enough about God.  I don’t understand ‘theology.’  I need a better grasp of the big picture.  Churches assume I already have that, and most sermons just muck around in the details.  I need to know God better and understand God’s will better.  I need encouragement to become the person God wants me to be.”  This series of statements sums up a large number of comments.  Sermons help most when they equip people with the tools of the Christian faith, explain how they can be used, then train people and encourage them to practice using them.  While this may sound simplistic, it is a widespread desire and hope.

There is an intense hunger to know God.  Fifteen different people (21%) used food analogies to help describe want they look for from a sermon.  “I am starving to know God.  I can’t get enough.  I can’t wait to sink my teeth into real substantial spiritual food, then I get rice cakes and water at church.  It is very frustrating.  I have better conversations about God at work (I do construction) than I do at church.  How f***** is that?”  “When I can to I was a newbie, a baby, and infant spiritually.  I really needed milk and super soft food.  But I have grown quite a bit.  I may be still a spiritual child, but I am ready for solid food.  I stopped going to my church and I looked around.  Really, all I could find offered was formula and soft-cereal.  I finally starting eating solid food when I got out of the church and found other Christians who really want to make a difference in the world.  I am so grateful for what the church fed me when I was new, but no one can live on that forever.”  ” My church feeds us, but it is all sugar and fat and carbs and seasoning — both figuratively and physically, if you’ve ever come to one of our meals you know what I mean.  I never knew there were three thousand different kinds of potato salad until I became a Christian.  When I felt my spiritual arteries clogging up, I knew it was time for a change.  I am so much happier in my faith now that I am out of the church, I can’t tell you.  A diet of prayer, Bible study with friends, and weekly mission work is the best diet on earth for a healthy Christian!”

What Sermons Speak Best?

Authentic, personal, real, concrete, practical.  When hearers leave a sermon saying, “I learned this about God, I learned this about my relationship with God, and I need to make a decision about how I will live,” then 87% of the survey sample feel that the sermon was worthwhile, and they would be likely to return to hear a second.  “I don’t want to walk away from a message and only be able to say, “I liked it,” or “I thought that was well done,” reflected one middle-aged woman.  A slighty-younger man echoed her sentiment, “The worst insult I hear in church is when people shake the preachers hand and say ‘Good sermon, preacher!’ when they don’t even know really what he said.  Too many people judge a good sermon on ‘was it short, was it entertaining, and could I hear it?’  There’s a lot more to a sermon than enjoyment.”

Spiritual seekers are simple creatures — they want to be more like Jesus… and they are willing to give their time and energy to anything that helps them do this.  When sermons promote this cause and hearers can leave feeling like they have received help in their journey, the sermon was “good.”  However, if the sermon doesn’t connect their spiritual journey to the larger story of God and God’s will for creation, they tend to see it as a waste of time.

This anecdotal project is just that — it is not good, thorough research, but a pool of information that raises enough questions to warrant good thorough research.  In 2005, while I was doing this research, I had opportunity to share the information in one of our annual conferences.  I was meeting with clergy one day, then meeting with a larger group of clergy and laity the next day.  The response was interesting.  When I had the clergy alone, there was a high level of defensiveness, and many preachers argued that these responses were a minority sample and not representative of the mainstream.  Clergy were all too willing to dismiss the findings and ignore the implications.  That is, until the laity joined them the next day.  Then, a majority of lay people INSIDE the church said they felt many of these things as well and that is was only due to relationships and meaningful outlets for their own faith that kept them in the church.  You could have knocked most of the clergy over with a feather.  So, there is obviously something here to learn and reflect upon.  MAny leaders in the church simply assume that worshipers and growing Christians “need” sermons preached to them.  But the question may not be “who needs a sermon,” but what kinds of sermons do people need, in order to grow in their relationship with God, Jesus Christ, and the whole human community?”

9 replies

  1. Dynamite! Thoroughly researched or not, this is helpful stuff!

    I’m the son of a pastor, who died young. When I asked Mother what sort of philosophy Dad had for his pastoral work, her response was something like this: “He always tried to love the people, and he tried to preach to the simplest person present. If a mentally-challenged person understood, then so could a college professor.” I tried to remember those things, and in preaching, I figured I was preaching to myself too. If I didn’t get anything from it, how could I expect others to do so? There were days when I had my doubts….

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