As a preacher, I get all sorts of unsolicited advice. "You know what would make your sermons better...power point" or props or "talk back sermons" or line-by-line exegesis or homework or whatever their favorite style is. Most of the time I thank them and at least consider how I might actually act on this advice. Even if I was a terrible preacher, preachers only supplement the mission of the church. Preaching is not the mission of the church.
A recent critique stirred up the memory a criticism from years ago where I was the exact opposite of the bible exegete I try to be today. The pitchforks gathered in a survey (a long time ago). The survey was not about preaching -- but served as a conduit for all sorts of discontent ---Hey preacher man-- not enough bible, stop wandering around the middle of the church, please write your sermons down (we get lost), you are driving the old-timers away from the church. They were at least partly right -- my stories were shallow and often revolved around my experience, my prayer, my insight. As I have evolved, I never would have expected Ricky Nelson, teen idol turned honkytonk hippie, to help me. He was rejected at a concert when he no longer fit the teen idol image.
Went to a garden party to reminisce with my old friends
A chance to share old memories and play our songs again
When I got to the garden party, they all knew my name
No one recognized me, I didn't look the same
But it's all right now, I learned my lesson well.
You see, ya can't please everyone, so ya got to please yourself
I want to please God, and am learning that feedback really isn’t about me, even if it is helpful. Hopefully the constructive criticism as well as the random potshots will make me more myself instead of diminishing me.
I decided to listen to a couple of my old sermons on the website. For me, the written ones are just better. The times I stuck to the script, they worked. It’s my own weakness, but when I try to riff and be creative and “be real” it does not have the same punch as when I deliberate and pour over every word. My “real” often devolves into embarrassing stories about my kids and dad jokes. Preaching ad lib “feels” more authentic for me, but comes across (in hindsight) a little shallow.
I could memorize my text and deliver it like an actor, but at the moment, that does not feel very real to me either, not to mention the extra time. My intentional, written sermons are more authentic without trying to look the part. This goes against my inclination and even my training where the preaching professor asked us, repeatedly, not to use notes. In seminary, I went without notes, got some praise from classmates, praise from church placements. It was as though I had discovered the preaching Rosetta stone.
One particular sermon comes to mind. Prepping For Easter 2018 I thought about every word. In preparation, I recorded and re-recorded on my phone it until it “sounded’ right to me. I just listened to Easter. It was was excellent and I don’t think it would be nearly as good as it was, if I had riffed on it.
Often jokey-jokey "real" preaching translates into some sort of weird preacher antics to stir up a response. One former boss --when she was preaching would try to stoke the congregation if they weren’t sufficiently responsive. If she said something that didn’t land, she would follow up with “am I alone here??” and we would all look up dutifully shake our head to encourage her.
When I hear a critique about anything, I really want to jump to fix it. I listened to my last sermon on April 15, and I think criticism was ringing in my ears when I preached. Listening to it, I hear now how I was subconsciously trying to ‘correct’ my style by gazing a people while I was talking to be more “real”. I was unconsciously remaking my sermon, trying to be relevant, to ‘speak to the people.’ I did not get lost, but the ad lib tangents added nothing. I would give it a B-, when it could have been an A. And my relatives were in town and they love to give letter grades, so who knows if I would even make to the B range for them?
Also, the April 15 sermon was a bit of a miss because I thought I could have it all – relevant, connected, the coolest guy in the room, smarter than all you all #@*rs, clear, deep, and funny all at once, but I am just not that good. I can only take a small bite each Sunday. Ultimately, I want people to leave Sunday morning smarter and more grounded than when they started, see the biblical story as their own, and take ownership of their relationship with God in order to live kindly and well. Even if they even forget that my words helped them live better - that's all good.
I must be some kind of refusenik when it comes to preaching. A three point sermon with three life application principles makes me gag. I can’t and won’t be a word of truth preacher telling everyone new cars and homes are coming their way, if only they were more generous givers. I can’t and won’t be some sort of fireside-chat preacher congratulating people on their club membership. I won’t be a self-appointed warrior for biblical truth on real and imagined devils in society. I refuse to see every scripture through the lens of Jon Sobrino, Antifa, or Saul Alinsky. I will not preach some sort of Taize God, who is just pleased as punch that we set our alarms in order to sit in church for an hour.
I do want to be one guy pointing his rapidly aging finger to Jesus, so that the whole church can figure out what's next. In the final analysis, I can't help myself because I really do care a great deal about preaching. At the right time, I hope to get to all of the above in my preaching --justice, acceptance, truth, comfort, life skills, prosperity, repentance and challenge. But only, I pray, as the spirit leads and not based on my favorite hobby horse. And certainly not all in one Sunday.
Who knows though? Preaching is important but it’s not the most important. A seminary professor once said, “who is a great preacher?...dramatic pause… someone who flies to the other side the country to preach, but who also can’t get people to walk across the street to hear it.”