I am working with some pastors in NW Iowa on preaching. They are largely from the Reformed tradition - Christian Reformed Church, The Reformed Church in America, and their various Reformed cousins - and have been meeting together for a couple of years with the help of a Lilly Endowment grant to support preachers administered byCalving Seminary's Center for Excellence in Preaching. Apparently they stumbled upon my book, Preaching at the Crossroads: How the World-and Our Preaching-Is Changing (cool)...and liked it (very cool)...enough to invite me to conversation (beyond cool! ).
We haven't just talked about preaching. We're also talking about the changing culture in which we live, the nature of congregational life, the kinds of pastoral leaders we need today, and how seminaries can help prepare such leaders and preachers. But mostly we're talking about preaching. And where we started was with a simple but often rather vexing question: what makes a good sermon.
We began by inviting folks to name when they had felt that something had really happened in their own preaching that felt like they had gotten it right. That the Spirit had been at work through them, perhaps even in spite of them, to make a difference in someone's life.
That was a more challenging question than you might imagine. Most of us are a bit uncomfortable talking about God working through us. And preachers certainly don't want to sound like we're lifting up our own sermons as a kind of model. We all know how hard preaching is and that when things fall together it's often as much about our listeners and the Spirit as it is us. But it still was a useful exercise to begin reflecting on our preaching.
We then turned the question slightly and asked, "When you don't have to preach or even lead worship, but instead are at church simply to worship, what do you want in a sermon?" That's a valuable question, too, as I think the best sermons are often preached to the preacher first. That's not to say we preach only our needs and interests, but rather that we need to start with a "felt" question or need. Preachers need, that is, to feel the Gospel connect first to our lives and questions before we can address it authentically to those of others. And we need to connect with our hearer though our experience.
That question occasioned good conversation as well, and I'll report on that - including my own answers - later this week or next. But what I'm really interested in is asking you the same question: what do you hope for in preaching? What makes a good sermon for you? What needs to happen for you to feel more connected to God and those around you?
I told these preachers that I often use my kids as one barometer. After church, one of them in particular will regularly ask me, "What did you think of the sermon, Dad?" He asks because he thinks I'm the expert. This is what I've taught for fifteen years now, after all. But I always answer him the same way: "What you thought about it is actually more important." And I think that's true. Because I've been culturally conditioned to expect a certain kind of sermon - the kind that has been pretty popular in the church for a couple of generations. But the future of our congregations depends a lot on whether my kids and the rest of their generation think church has something to offer them, and that includes what they think about the sermons. I'll keep going to church; for me it's not optional. For them and their peers, it is.
Truth be told, more often than not, my kids find sermons pretty boring. And I've wondered whether it's my job to help them "appreciate" the classical forms of preaching or whether I should simply keep engaging them around what would make sermons more interesting for them. Perhaps a bit of each. But I worry, frankly, that if really try to "educate" them to like today's preaching all I'm really doing is teaching them that this is the best they can expect. To be bored a fair amount of the time but to be pleasantly surprised, and occasionally even delighted, when a sermon gets them thinking or inspires them. Can we do better?
If we do, I think it's going to come from everyday Christians being more honest what what they hope for in preaching and worship. So I'll ask again, what do you want, hope for, and especially need to hear on Sunday morning? What might a preacher do - and I realize worship is way more than preaching but I want to focus on the sermon just now - to help connect you more deeply to God and to God's world? What can be said or done on Sunday morning that will enrich your spiritual life? I'd really like to know. So would the pastors I'm working with today. For that matter, so would the thousands of preachers who get up every Sunday and say something they hope matters. Thanks for helping us out by responding honestly about your hopes for preaching in the comments.
One last note: Preachers, I'd invite you to resist the temptation to respond so that we can hear from our listeners. I'll reflect on what they say later and that would be great time to jump in.