What Do We Want from the Sermon

I’ll start with a confession: for the better part of the last five years I’ve been losing confidence in preaching. This isn’t a commentary on the preaching I’ve been hearing, I should be clear, as I’ve been quite fortunate to worship in several congregations with engaging preachers. Rather, it’s preaching in general in which I’ve lost confidence, my own preaching included.

Why? Two main reasons. First, as I look around at the culture, the form and shape of our preaching seems increasingly out of touch. In a culture that is increasingly participatory, our preaching is still primarily a monologue. In a culture passionate about discovering meaning and crafting identity, our preaching too often draws conclusions for our hearers rather than inviting them into the questions themselves. Second, as I look around our congregations, I see any number of people largely disconnected from the preaching, appreciating a touching story, perhaps, but rarely drawing from the sermon something they will continue to think about during the rest of the week.

For this reason, lately I’ve been asking people – including last week on this site – what they want from the sermon. Perhaps not surprisingly, there has been both significant overlap in views about some aspects of preaching and some creative difference regarding others, and I’ve learned from, and want to share, both the convergence and divergence of opinions.

Overall, the thing I’ve heard most frequently from folks is their desire to be able both to follow the sermon and apply it to their daily lives. While the first half of that hope is essentially rhetorical – that the sermon is well organized and clear – the second deals more with the orientation or thrust of the sermon. In a poll I conducted as part of a Lilly Endowment-funded research project on congregational vibrancy, the number one thing people wanted was for the sermon to help them understand how the biblical passage informs their daily lives. So while background on the biblical texts may be helpful to understand a passage, for most hearers the sermon comes alive when that two-thousand year-old story helps them think more deeply and faithfully about their twenty-first century challenges, questions, and struggles.

Two other points of convergence are worth noting. First, people want to hear the Gospel of God’s love for them and the world. They want to be reminded of God’s grace and promised God’s forgiveness in order to face the opportunities and struggles ahead. Second, most hearers also want to be challenged – to think differently, yes, but to live differently as well. They want increasingly to be given help framing the questions they have and to be given tools to answer those questions rather than having answers provided. They want, in short, to be participants in connecting faith and life rather than only spectators.

Here is where the divergence came in. Overall, most people still prefer to be engaged through what we might call “passive means” – that is, when the preacher takes primary responsibility for engaging listeners. Chief among such requests is that preachers employ more stories that connect the biblical passage to every day life. Stories, as many have noted, are the common currency with which we make sense of and share our lives, and preachers can help us relate Scripture to daily life by offering us stories that illumine such connections. Another common hope was that preachers identify a single insight, question, or challenge with which to send hearers into their week, perhaps even inviting hearers to share by email or social media later in the week the substance of their reflections.

Interestingly, a small but distinct minority of people name their desire for more “active” engagement and want to share in providing, as well as receiving, the content of the sermon. Is there room for active participation and discussion, whether before, during, or after the sermon? Must sermons be monologues? Can preachers turn over greater responsibility for connecting the sermon to everyday life, creating space for hearers to move from the role of audience to participant? These are the questions this growing cadre of folks is asking.

In my career as a theologian and teacher of preachers, I’ve tried to describe this trend this way: I was taught in seminary that the chief purpose of preaching was to create faith, and I still value that aspect of preaching highly. What I wasn’t taught was that preaching also has the potential to help us see God and, having seen God, to participate in God’s ongoing work to love and bless this world. When you focus on the first function of preaching – creating faith – you tend to focus on the past and present of a biblical passage, asking what this passage meant to its original audience and what it might mean to us today. When you add this second purpose – helping us see God – you begin focusing on the future of the passage, asking where we might see this passage coming true in our own lives and inviting us to imagine how we might live into the story this passage tells.

In a culture that no longer assumes, let alone encourages, congregational participation, and for a generation that has numerous sources from which they might create their identity, I think preachers have increasingly responsibility for not only proclamation but also formation, giving us the tools by which we can imagine how this biblical story might be our story, and guiding us into a future shaped and animated by the presence and grace of the living God. A tall order, for sure, but one I believe is still blessed by the Holy Spirit.