Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Asking for more instead of settling for less. . .

We hear an almost universal call for shorter sermons.  I am sure that this is common across the great spread of denominations and congregations.  Many have said that this is due to the impact of culture, the media, our short attention spans, our ADD minds, etc.  Could it be that there are other reasons?  Could it be that the preaching is not as good as it ought to be?  I am not trying to throw the preacher under the bus and I certainly do not mean to hold myself up as a role model but the desire for shorter sermons may have something to do with the sermon itself.  I just wonder why we think the best preachers use the fewest words; I think the best preachers are not stingy with words but neither do they treat them as cheap commodities either.  The best sermons are not necessarily those that last less than 7 minutes.  If our people want briefer sermons it might be that this is a backhanded appeal for quality than it is a definition of quantity.

We have a membership at the Nashville Symphony and I have never attended there without the audience clapping for more.  Often we are rewarded with an encore as a reward for our persistent applause and even that is not enough.  We want more.  We have attended a few other concerts of late and the same was true of them.  The whole audience applauded in the hopes of hearing more.  I do not see movies often but when I go to the theater I do not see people leaving early.  In many cases they remain even through the credits – hoping for more.

I have heard sermons that left me disappointed because they ended too soon.  I listened oblivious to my watch or the passage of time.  This does not happen as often as it should but it happens, praise God.  On those occasions, I am moved by the skill and ability of the preacher to do better in my own preaching task, to work much harder at the craft itself.  Sometimes the folks in the pews notice.  They don’t know what exactly is different but they wish it happened more frequently. I expect that most preachers and most folks in the pews understand what I mean.

Often the problem is we try to do too much.  Sermons are not theological treatises to answer every question.  They are best when the Word of Christ is the center and focus.  The whole point of preaching is to let the Word of the Lord speak through us clearly.  Too often we preachers approach the Word as if it is not adequate in and of itself and requires something from us.  I am not saying that we merely string Bible passages together.  Instead of explaining the Word, we need to apply it and apply it first to our own hearts and lives before we apply it to the lives of others.  The person I know best of all is me and every Sunday I preach first to me, speaking the Word to my own heart and life but out loud, so that others hear.  When I get into trouble it is when I presume to think I know the hearts of others as well as I know my own.  When I lose my way in the pulpit is when I treat preaching and the sermon as something for others. 

The other side of the coin is that we try to do too little.  Sermons without a point.  We often waste the attention of the hearers by preaching what we feel little about.  Our lack of passion and conviction are obvious to the folks in the pews even if they are not obvious to us as preachers.  To be honest, if we have nothing much to say, it is often because we do not know the Word well enough.  It is too much a stranger to us and not the familiar voice of our Good Shepherd to His sheep.  As Lutherans we benefit from a lectionary that gives us a starting point.  If we cannot be familiar with the whole of Scripture, at least we can we can learn the lectionary, more than one week at a time, but as the whole of the Church Year unfolds, treating seasons and not merely Sundays one at a time.  If we know our destination, the shape of the journey will be much easier to map out.

What I can say is that if we wait to write the sermon until a few days before it is given (exception of course for unexpected occasions like funerals), we will not give the preaching task our best nor will we give the people what they deserve.  As I have said before, preachers need to read sermons as well as write them, hear them as well as preach them, and discern the qualities of good preaching (both in terms of style and content).  I recall learning to preach as walking with giants.  If we are to become one, it stands to reason we should walk with them – becoming familiar with the giants in the preaching task over the ages.

Wouldn’t it be great if preaching and preachers improved in this essential task to the point where people would be asking for more instead of hoping for less?

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