Twenty years ago a retired pastor offered me some advice following my seminary graduation ceremony. "When you get on a plane, never tell the person sitting next to you that you're clergy unless you want to spend your entire flight listening to their personal dilemmas or 'stump the pastor' questions." He chuckled in his delivery, but I knew by the look in his eyes he was offering me wise counsel.
Most clergy could probably write a book about their exchanges with strangers on planes, buses and trains. Personal. Probing. Often touching. Sometimes awkward.
A year ago, when my fellow passenger in row eight inquired about my occupation, I casually shared I was a pastor who had been called to serve as associate director of a seminary's center for biblical preaching. He nearly dropped his newspaper. "Finally, I have found someone who can answer my question. I like my pastor a lot, but can you tell me why his sermons are so boring?" This question was a first. As he and I began to chat, I immediately sensed his sincerity. His was a question I needed to think about and answer.
A Lilly-endowed study of more than 10,000 Christian laypeople revealed that while 78 percent of them have never discussed a sermon with their preacher, church members do have strong opinions and deep hopes for their pastor's preaching. The study found that:
- Laypeople listen to a sermon expecting inspiration to encourage spiritual growth.
- Laypeople look to preaching for spiritual leadership, especially as it relates to current life and societal issues.
- Laypeople rely on preaching for serious spiritual content about the Bible and not good advice that can be found in a self-help book.
- Laypeople listen to preaching expecting a long-lasting impact. When this happens, listeners are motivated to return for another church service.
- Laypeople come to church hoping for a sermon that will make a difference in their hearts and an impact on their lives. Unfortunately too often they spend the sermon passing their time by doling out lifesavers to their children, doodling on the bulletin insert or making a mental "to do" list for the upcoming week.
And yet, the truth is I have never met a pastor who wanted to preach a bad sermon. Most preachers are genuinely devoted to their craft, striving to compose meaningful and life changing messages week after week. But this desire must be paired with the reality of congregational life. Clergy stand on the frontline of life in its harshest form. In any given week, a death, an unexpected illness, a parishioner crisis or community disaster can simultaneously fall upon one or several members of a congregation. The critical time a pastor has carved out for sermon preparation is quickly filled with their important calling to be present and offer much-needed pastoral ministry. Caregivers often put themselves last. Clergy are no exception.
When Saturday night rolls around, a pastor can be exhausted from the week's unanticipated emergencies and still have hours of preparation to complete for Sunday morning's message. It's no wonder the sermon isn't what s/he had hoped to preach, even with a myriad of good intentions.
For pastors to fulfill their calling to preach transformative sermons, it's important that this task is shared by the congregation. While preachers may be deprived of the preparation time they need week in and week out, there are days and weeks when preachers can steal away, sit with the biblical text, pray and ponder. Clergy need the freedom to take this holy time without questioning or judgment from the congregation. A wise congregational president or church council will schedule regular preaching retreats on the pastor's calendar, arranging for a supply preacher and an on-call pastoral care provider, so their minister has a long weekend to work ahead with the biblical interpretation and study that build great sermons.
When preachers have this sacred opportunity to live with the biblical text, it frees them to make lively and engaging connections with the world that we all live in on an ongoing basis. Some seminary homiletics departments teach their students to live this engagement with the text while they are still in seminary. A biblical text is read in class and then students are sent out for some reality therapy - to the waiting area of a hospital emergency room, a bus ride through an urban and impoverished community, the local café, the lobby of a bustling commercial center, a busy children's soccer field or a hotel bar. This "dislocated exegesis" serves as another classroom for preaching students to study the text within the realities parishioners face everyday.
Recently I led an adult forum at a Manhattan congregation known for its great preaching. This was a safe place for me to ask active church members about the elements of a good sermon without fearing it would become a discussion of disappointments regarding their Sunday pulpit. Participants were unanimous in their responses.
"We want a sermon that brings together the world of the Bible and our world today."
"We need a new and relevant interpretation of the old, old story."
"I love it when my pastor studies the Bible and finds kernels of truth I would never see for myself."
"We do not want a sermon that skirts current issues. Jesus didn't do that. At our church, we sit on the edge of our seats every week because our preachers connect the Word of God with the important news of the day and the real world we live in."
The best preaching conversations I have observed are between a pastor and his/her own people. For a sermon to be a public discourse, it takes a pastor and a congregation. The shape and form of these conversations cannot be prescribed. In a community of faith where there is trust and openness, they will develop organically between the pastor and the people. Some pastors distribute comment cards to a few or everyone in the congregation, inviting their feedback immediately after a message is delivered. Other preachers choose to study the weekly text with a group of laypeople, in addition to or instead of a clergy study group, in preparation for Sunday's sermon. Whatever the method, the goal of these preachers is to dig deep into the Biblical text and then make even deeper connections with the hearers of its proclamation. Pastors need to know their preaching matters. When a pastor and a congregation share the ministry of preaching, God will do a new thing through the proclamation of the Word. Lives will be changed, but, more importantly, our perspective the world and our place in it will change too.