What a Sermon Isn’t

What a Sermon Isn’t

If you weren’t in church on Sunday, July 4 (and, on a holiday weekend, that’s a big crowd), you missed our continuing study of the book of Ephesians, as part of our series, “The Church in Practice.” On Sunday, I spoke about the purpose of the sermon in our worship. In a world of talking heads and never-ending commentary, why do we need to carve out even a slice of our service to listen to someone tell us what we should think or how we should act?

Well, I looked at Ephesians 3 and arrived at a few reasons. Frankly, though our Anglican tradition has a rich legacy of vibrant preaching, the sermon is pretty downplayed in our present context. Most folks who sit in our Sunday services have been to enough churches where the pastor’s eight point sermon took center stage—they’ve come here looking for something else. I certainly understand the impulse; that’s a big part of my journey to Restoration, too.

As I thought more about that this week, a new approach struck me. In our time on Sunday, I focused on what a sermon is and the work it’s supposed to do in our service. But perhaps it would be helpful to say what a sermon isn’t as a way of detaching preaching from some of the failed attempts we’re often subjected to in church. Understanding what a sermon isn’t might also help us recalibrate our expectations and get more out of that time.

So this is my quick list of what a sermon isn’t that I use as a guide when I’m preaching. Perhaps sharing it here will help us all center our hearts more on what God has for us in his word.

  1. A sermon isn’t a Ted Talk: What I love most about Ted Talks is the line, “It turns out…” The speakers always use this line like a segue into the punchline: ‘Given that gorillas are solitary creatures, we might have expected they would have rudimentary language skills, but it turns out…‘ TA-DAH! A new hypothesis! A new discovery! A thing you can say over coffee with your friend! The magic of the Ted Talk is exciting because it takes us to the cutting edge of knowledge—the latest findings, the revolutionary new ideas. And, sure, sometimes sermons do some heavy lifting with a passage that’s been misconstrued or a cultural phenomenon that’s not being approached with a Christian lens. Jesus himself was famous for his phrase: “You have heard it said, but I tell you…” But preachers and congregations sometimes become so enamored with novelty that they will happily skim past obvious truths and callings on their lives because they don’t have that ‘WOW’ factor. And, more dangerously, when preachers think of themselves as the expert with the special insight, they happily set aside a biblical foundation in order to deliver a pop-psychological cultural analysis.
  2. A sermon isn’t a Bible Study: Does this surprise you? Certainly, the foundation for any sermon ought to be the Bible, but sermons veer off course when they limit their scope to simply explaining or teaching a passage. Before I was ordained, Jed often asked me to preach when he was out of town or just needed a break. Honestly, I was intimidated. Not as a speaker—I’ve always been comfortable in that mode—but I was scared to say something. It was easier to go into ‘English Teacher’ mode: just walk through the passage like a tour guide, pointing out all the interesting stuff along the way. We need biblical scholars in the pulpit now more than ever. We need preachers who live and breathe the Bible and aren’t afraid to dig all the way in for everything it has for us. But a preacher isn’t just a teacher, and a sermon isn’t just a lesson. Preachers have to read their people along with their text, understanding how a passage has a specific call that needs to be made known to this congregation at this particular moment.
  3. A sermon isn’t a Netflix special: Guys, I really want to be funny. I have learned that if I don’t have at least two ‘laugh lines’ in the first five minutes, I will lose you. It’s just how communication works. But if I approached my task in preaching as fundamentally being entertainment, competing with your weekly binges—I’ve already lost. You’ll never believe this, but sometimes preachers have egos. I know, I know, but go with me. Sometimes, they actually believe that someone woke up early on their day off work, got dressed, made small talk with strangers, sang songs out loud with them, all because they couldn’t wait to hear the next episode of “Preacher Talk.” When that particular monster attacks me, I tell myself: If they wanted to be entertained, they wouldn’t be here—they came to find something they couldn’t find anywhere else. They are looking for the gospel, and it’s my job to help them find it.
  4. A sermon isn’t a knee jerk: A word that’s creeping into everyone’s vocabulary lately is discourse. As in, ‘the discourse around this issue has become too contentious.’ In some ways, we just took the model that sports talk radio perfected in the 90’s and stretched it across every form of media. Lob a hot opinion out there on the airwaves, then invite callers to respond. It’s the goose that laid the golden egg. And sometimes preachers can be lured into this game. Sometimes, we feel we are called upon to respond and weigh in on whatever the day’s discourse is. And, sure, there ought to be a close awareness of what’s happening in the world in the sermon. But the world doesn’t actually set the agenda for Sunday. The talking points don’t come down to me from whatever happens to be trending. Sometimes, preachers end up with sore legs from letting their knees jerk from week to week. Instead, faithful preachers should remember Jesus in the bottom of the boat. Though the waves and winds seemed to dictate the urgency of the moment, Jesus knew who was really in charge, and that kept him peaceful and steady.
  5. A sermon isn’t a poem: This one hurts a little, to be honest. I once read that all sermons are just bad poems. They are trying to observe reality as it really is, not as it appears, and speak into the emotional core that ghosts past our superficial selves—but usually we just do it more clumsily than the artists. As one with a deep appreciation for beauty and the role of art in telling the truth, I’ll be the first to say that preachers should be immersed in the arts and commend the consuming and creating of good art to their flocks. But the sermon isn’t just a song. It isn’t an abstract painting. It isn’t an indie film that supposed to leave everything ambiguous and depressing at the end. Sermons aren’t meant to be hung on walls, they are meant to be carried out by the people who hear them. That means they have to be more than crafted, more than clever, more than lovely. They need to be useful. Perhaps the aesthetic balance for sermons could follow the architectural mantra: form follows function.

There’s more mistakes in preaching than we could recount here. Ultimately, I will fall back to the two-word answer I gave on Sunday. What is a sermon supposed to do? Proclaim Christ. The sermon is meant to help us see how Christ is working in our lives and in our world in the ways that aren’t always obvious to us. And then it invites us to hear the call to join him, not out of burdensome obligation, but out of sheer delight, because his grace has restored us to do what we were always meant to do. To be who we were always meant to be.