Wednesday, December 13, 2006

On Sermons and How They Are Heard

Every pastor preaches to be heard, but what is the reception really like out there? Many of us, while we might express curiosity, are probably very reluctant to know for sure. The person in the pew, for the most part, will form his or her opinions, but will seldom express them - at least not to the preacher. Some, who do not like what they hear, will act on those opinions by becoming less active in church, claiming it to be a waste of time, since they "don't get anything out of the sermon."

As pastors we are trained in the art of homiletics. We are taught principals of public speaking and communication, as well as the art of exegesis (the study and interpretation of the Word in the original). We realize that we are applying the Word to real people, so many of us, it is hoped, truly work to understand what our people need to hear. This is the bare essense of the task. Yet in the midst of this there are many other points that the man or woman in the pew also considers important. They expect the message to be clear and easy to follow, using illustrations from the world they know. If they lose the train of thought or suddenly cannot follow you, they become frustrated.

The quandary of the pastor often is balancing the need to learn what can sometimes be complex, and the desire of people to keep things as simple as possible.

Paul McCain, back in April, quoted an article by Chuck Coleson and Ann Morse, entitled "Soothing Ourselves to Death." It's not about preaching, per se, but contains a paragraph that is appropriate to this discussion. And the point here is the question of just what does the person in the pew bring when they come to hear a sermon? What are their skills - skill of listening and understanding? And has our media-saturated culture of the last several decades dulled the ability of our people to really hear and listen and understand? Coleson writes:

"The great strength of radio, as with books, has been to present in-depth teaching and moral discussion that engages Christians cognitively. This is something Americans find increasingly difficult. According to a recent study, the average college graduate's proficient literacy in English has declined from 40 percent in 1992 to 31 percent today. The study defines proficient literacy as the ability to read lengthy, complex texts and draw complicated inferences. Think about it: One out of three college graduates cannot read a book or absorb a serious sermon.
But the gospel above all else is revealed propositional truth—truth that speaks to all of life. Yes, the gospel is simple enough for a child to understand. Yet if you want to study doctrine and worldview, you need the capacity to think. You need the capacity to engage ideas cognitively.
Doctrine and biblical teaching are not—as some "emerging church" advocates believe—dry, dusty, abstract notions. This truth has to be carried into the heart and applied. But there is no escaping that it is truth that must be learned.
Sure, skits and catchy music are good tools for drawing people in, and good Christian music on the radio can inspire us. But these things aren't an end in and of themselves; they should engage us in learning and applying truth.
When Postman published his book two decades ago, he feared television would impair our capacity to think. He was right. Can we learn from this—or are we destined to follow suit, the church blissfully amusing itself into irrelevance?"

So, what does the preacher do, aware of this? No pastor worth his salt ever wants to be accused of "dumbing down" his message. However, as Luther encouraged pastors, he is to preach to every "Hans and Grettel." He is not preaching to a room full of Ph.D's. And to what degree does he comprimise in this, walking the fine balance between offering 'meat' for serious consumption, and milk for those not quite ready? This is my struggle at present. For after 19+ years of ministry it appears that I am at a point of serious reflection on my own homiletical skills. I am not reaching all my people. Some are tuning me out and staying away. To what degree do I explain this as lack of faith, and to what degree must I examine my own preaching? Keep tuned as I think this one out.....

1 comment:

SWJ said...

Do you use the one-year lectionary? Do you always preach on the Gospel? Do you use sermon illustrations? Is there a difference between a sermon and a homily? How long are your sermons? How long is your Divine Service? Just wondering.

SJ