Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Preaching: What Is It Good For?

Ethicsdaily.com recently reported the results of a survey carried out for the College of Preachers in England. This story, headlined "Sermons May Be Popular But Rarely Lead to Action", says that a survey of 200 churchgoers revealed that fewer than 17% say that sermons frequently change the way they live or help them develop a fresh look at controversial issues or recent events. The same study showed that 2/3 of people look forward to the sermon and over half say that sermons frequently give them a sense of God's love and help them understand Jesus. One of the conclusions that the College of Preachers has drawn from this research is that sermons are "better at helping people to reflect than challenging them to act" and that "too much preaching is doing too little to motivate people to look at the world differently and therefore live in it differently."

It should be noted that this is a pilot survey of only 200 people from 16 churches in England. It is hard by any means to declare this an extensive study. However, I still find myself confronting strong but mixed reactions to this story.

A lot of discussion and feedback I hear about sermons focus on the question of whether or not people "like" the sermon. To me, if we talk about liking a sermon, then we are not expecting a sermon to challenge us but instead we are expecting the sermon to be in line with our preconceived notions and ideas. This can become an issue when we talk about the ministry as a profession. I once heard another pastor say that he would love to work another job and only preach on Sundays so that his primary means of making a living did not come from the church. Then, he said, he could say what he really wanted to say on Sundays and not worry about the possible repercussions in terms of his means of making a living and supporting his family. I don't know if I share this exact same line of thinking, but there have definitely been occasions when I have found myself questioning whether or not I should say something in a sermon based on whether or not I think people will like it. Can preaching really result in changed lives if the preacher does not feel that he can speak honestly? Is the fear of possible repercussions real or perceived?

And should a sermon's purpose be to motivate action? I think a dangerous line is approached when we allow sermons to focus on motivating action because it becomes easy for the message to become about doing what the preacher thinks we should do rather than acting as we perceive God calling us to act. I think that the reflective role of the preaching ministry is therefore extremely important and should not be made inferior to the "call to action." Does this mean that the sermon should not point out specific actions that the Christian should take? No, but I think that this task must be held in balance with the reflective part of the preaching act. I hear some ministers talk about being less concerned with theology in their sermons and more concerned with "daily, practical" living out of the faith. I am all for that, but it is the theology that helps us have an understanding of why we should try to daily live out our faith in a practical manner. My concern is that a study such a this can cause a push to the opposite extreme rather than an attempt at proper balance.

Finally, I would love to take those same 200 people and interview their pastors, review the sermons that they preached over the course of the year. How many of their sermons included a "call to action"? My point is: a sermon is not just about the word proclaimed, it is also the proclaimed word heard. Is it that this task is being ignored by preachers, or is it that congregations aren't hearing it, or that it is not being presented well?

Just a couple of thoughts. I welcome feedback.

1 comment:

Tim Marsh said...


I may write more later. I can truly sympathize with your friend who is a pastor. I have those thoughts from time to time as well.

Cultural expectations and social location seem to dictate the purpose of the sermon and the homiletical strategy in communication.

For preaching as reflection, I think that reaches a certain audience who is trained to follow a clever argument with a central theme throughout. Usually these are well-educated audiences.

African American congregations seem to respond especially to scriptural echoes of key biblical narratives that identify with their current plight.

Middle class, predominantly white, congregations are used to three points and a poem, where exposition and application are identified in the sermon.

My favorite "preachers" are all expository or topical preachers. I imagine that this is so because they are from my background and I can connect with them.

An inductive, lectionary based preacher would not connect well with me.

I don't know that any homiletical strategy is right or wrong. I do know that there are strengths and weaknesses to both. But, I tend to communicate in ways that the audience is familiar with. I preach differently at the prison than I do at the church, because the make up of the audience is different. There needs and skills are different.

I think that is where people come to say that they "like" the sermon.

And to follow, I feel that the purpose of the sermon also arises from cultural expectations. For us it was to move to the "decision" time or the invitation in the worship service.

Nevertheless, I feel that we are going to have to reconsider the sermon as the primary means of communication of prophetic witness, biblical truth and exaltation of the cross.

Recently, I had an acquaintance tell me about visiting an on-line church. There was live audio from the sermon, musical background and a chat-room where people could converse about the sermon during the sermon. People can absorb so much more information. We can question whether or not they are really focused, but they are digesting and conversing about the sermon while it is preached and are "internalizing" as a result.

More and more classes are moving to conversational, media-driven classes rather than lecture and quarterly.

I feel like, as a pastor, I need to find ways to stay ahead of the game. Right now, I feel like, though a moderate baptist, my style resembles a Southern Baptist from the 1980's. Not good, considering we have entered the third decade since the 80's.

Loved the post and appreciate your ministry in Elon and to the wider Baptist and Church body.