It happens on a weekly basis. Someone preaches a sermon almost every time Christians gather for worship. A sermon is meant to take people places and alter their perspectives. It is an event designed to walk the Lord into heads that get all locked up and hearts that get all broken up. Every line a preacher delivers oozes with potential. At least that's the expectation.
Unfortunately, eventfulness doesn't always happen. Sometimes it rarely occurs. Hearers may endure what sounds to their ears like an extended book report. They force themselves to listen to a preacher retell the biblical story they heard read moments earlier, only with a couple thousand explanatory words thrown in. When they want an encounter with God, what they often receive is an earful of talk about God.
Having just returned from 11 weeks of listening to preachers in churches across the country, I'm ready to make some adjustments in my own preaching. I heard dreadful stuff that is an embarrassment to the riches of the gospel and discourteous to hearers who possess honest hopes. I was also lucky enough to experience some exemplary preaching that rocked my soul. Here are a few conclusions drawn from that journey.
Preachers seem to have a desire to pass along knowledge. Extensive sermon preparation must provide them with an informed or enlightened feeling. But in the pew the question becomes: "Since when do I need more knowledge when my heart is aching under the weight of life?"
Perhaps you have noticed from your own listening experience that you're not thirsting for a wordy description of God every week. You're not hungry for long-winded explanations. All you want is someone who will offer Christ and usher a little grace into your life. You found your way to church, but like a whole lot of other people you're secretly trying to decide if faith is all it's cracked up to be. Is it worth your time? You don't want someone standing in a pulpit to read you a recipe. You'd prefer receiving some actual bread.
Serving warm bread that will arrive in the distinct shape of words doesn't have to be difficult. It's mostly a matter of getting past the fluff.
I think of my favorite professor in college who taught me more about writing and speaking than anyone before or since. She had two rubber stamps in her desk drawer. One read "SO WHAT?!" and the other read "WHO CARES?!" She ruthlessly went down the left margin of my carefully bloated history papers, burning through ink pads, one after another. All kinds of paragraphs went the way of the trash bin.
Those of us who preach on a regular basis would do well to purchase a few of those rubber stamps.
What else did I learn from my travels?
Being smart is not a requirement for good preaching; basic wisdom is. Since cute Internet stories display zero wisdom, preachers can do their congregations a favor by staying clear of them.
I saw whole congregations with eyes trying to communicate an urgent request to their pastor: "Just tell us the truth. Tell us the truth not only about God, but also about life - preferably our lives. Speak from your heart and use words that match the gravity of your soul."
When that quality of speech doesn't make it into a sermon, people begin to lose heart. They leave uninspired. They're puzzled that their pastor would mistake an apparent excitement for having a lot of people listen to him with what ought to be a passionate love affair with God.
Good preachers don't merely tuck God into their words. They throw themselves (and countless hours of preparation) headlong into those words. It's time well spent. God's people crave embodied words. They also know that few things taste better than warm bread.