Here’s a question I’ve often pondered.
Is preaching actually effective?
We live in a world literally bombarded with information. Tools like Twitter, Instagram, texts, news alerts, Facebook, YouTube, Vimeo, Snapchat, and Slack shove information at these computers we carry around in our pockets. Many of us are information weary – and then we tell people to come to worship, sit still, and let us talk at them for 20 minutes 1.
In this environment, is preaching effective?
Believe it or not I actually think it is, but probably not in the way most preachers want it to be. Here are some ways I think preaching can continue to be effective in our information weary world.
Less is more
I know the “big names” in preaching can go on for an hour, have TV Shows, and are far more influential than I. But I’m convinced anything over 20-25 minutes is really about the pastor than it is about the message. We’ve just got to cram in that great story, or clever anecdote, or Greek definition 2 so we can show how studied we are in the ways of God’s word.
Less is more. It requires extreme focus on one thread of a Biblical passage, which is tightly applied to a congregation’s life. Personally, I’m not terrific at it 3, but I am trying to be ever more disciplined as a preacher. It’s important to note the most celebrated forum of public speaking in our culture today, TED Talks, requires speakers to be eighteen minutes or less.
When less is more, the content is king and the presenter is the servant 4.
There is no need to set oneself up as an expert on “everything Godly and good” to be a preacher. Admit your foibles, and be honest when you’re uncertain 5 by something you’ve read in your preaching preparation. The goal of preaching is not to get people to latch on to the preacher, it’s to come together to latch on to Jesus. The preacher can’t save anyone, a sermon can’t save anyone, Jesus does that.
When we attempt to position ourselves as the local God-arbiter we tend to be viewed as meat-space versions of annoying Internet know-it-alls. Just relax, and let people see you. You’re a fellow pilgrim on this journey, you simply have a peculiar calling.
Stop trying to be clever
I enjoy writing, and coming up with titles is a particularly enjoyable exercise for me. I used to spend a huge amount of time coming up with just the right title for a sermon to satisfy this creative impulse.
No one cared.
Maybe, once in a blue moon, I got a comment on a sermon title. But mostly, people just left saying, “Nice sermon pastor.” After a while, I found it kind of depressing. But over time I learned something. Why on earth should I care if people were impressed by the title of a sermon? Caring about such a trivial thing wasn’t about people’s spiritual growth, or Jesus’ glory – it was about stroking my ego. I had to let it go.
I think this goes for the content of sermons as well. The more clever we try to be, the more likely it is we are making the sermon about how great the preacher is. I’m not saying we shouldn’t string our words together well, we need to do this in order to communicate. There are times, however, when we may find ourselves thinking, “Oh that’ll make them laugh/clap/cheer!” Those are times were we might need to step back and ask ourselves, “For whom are we doing that?”
Play the “long game”
There are times when we preachers think we’ve written the best sermon ever, but it gets no response at all. Sometimes it’s enough to get pastored depressed enough to sit in their bathrobe for the next two days, wondering what went wrong.
Well, aside from remembering it’s Christ who saves people, and the Holy Spirit who moves them, we preachers really need to stop being so impressed with ourselves 6. No single sermon is all that important, in the grand scheme of things. Nor, really, is any one series.
Preaching’s effectiveness is seen over months and years of going over the themes the Holy Spirit brings to light. It’s not that the same thing is said over and over and over, but that the Spirit highlights same angle over and over and over. In fact, I typically call my sermons “meditations,” and a common metaphor for meditation is “chewing cud.” That is, going over something important again and again as it sinks into our souls and nourishes our being.
If we preachers pause and consider what themes the Holy Spirit wants the congregation to ponder, we will be better able to help the congregation ruminate.
There are times when I will share with other pastors the types of things I’ve said during a sermon, and they look at me as though I’ve lost my mind. Some are boggled by the way I’m honest about my shortcomings, others are flummoxed when I admit my own confusion with a particular text, still more wonder how I get away with preaching the passages I do 7.
The reality is, I don’t “get away” with any of this. I have the freedom to preach difficult passages, or challenge long-held theological assumptions, and admit my own broken-nature because the folks here know I love them. It took a while for that love to mature, and even longer for some folks to trust its depth, but in the end that’s what matters. Folks know I love them – and they can disagree with me, or challenge me, or ask questions. They’ll still be loved. That, more than anything on this earthly plane, is what gives people the wherewithal to listen and make preaching effective.
- Or, in “serious churches,” an hour. ↩
- Which is frequently wrong, and things get even stranger when Hebrew is involved. ↩
- I like my rabbit trails too much. ↩
- And, to be clear, Jesus Christ is Lord. ↩
- Or even unsettled ↩
- See the cleverness section above. ↩
- My second sermon series at Central was eight months in Ecclesiastes, that was twelve years ago. ↩