"Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." Paul to the persecuted at Philippi (2:5-11)

03 May 2009

A Sermon Listener's Bill of Rights (moved)

I don't listen to a lot of sermons these days. Mostly, I'm the one preaching. If I am listening, I'm quite often critiquing, my seminarian, a student in the deacon formation program. Sometimes I'm mentally critiquing even when I don't mean to. I'm almost always having a conversation in my head with the preacher, sort of in the same way that I write in the margins of my books.

On my way home from church today-- its a long drive-- I found myself thinking, wondering, what goes through other people's minds, what are they thinking when I'm the one in the pulpit. What ought they be thinking? How much do they really take home? What would make the whole sermon experience better, more useful to them? Is this just a weekly event they have to endure, rather like getting one's teeth cleaned on schedule, or is it something worth engaging. Is homiletics an art to be enjoyed? It should be.

But clearly it isn't. Most Anglicans seem to find sermons longer than 15 minutes to be onerous. Maybe they've not been taught to listen. Maybe they're used to sermons that aren't worth listening to. How many of them would be happy if they went to hear a lecture, went to all the trouble of making the time to go, and the speaker only gave them a fifteen minute lecture? If they went to a comedy routine and only got a fifteen minute effort they'd demand their money back. Even their television shows are expected to give them at least a half an hour's entertainment or information.

But sermons aren't for entertainment... unfortunately, they're not often for much at all. Hence:

A Sermon Listener's Bill of Rights
1. The sermon listener has a right to a well prepared sermon. The preacher has a responsibility to spend significant time in the Scriptures each week, show up with notes and a solid idea where the sermon is going. No lawyer goes into a courtroom without being prepared for any and all possibilities, but we face larger and more important juries every time we step into a pulpit. Many preachers prefer to rattle off stream of conciousness in what should be Christian Education's Prime Time. If you produce no other decent work all week, the sermon needs to be solid.
2. The sermon listener has a right to a biblical sermon. Stories from your childhood are nice, but they don't change lives, strengthen the weak or build on a foundation. Sermons should stick close to the text, make appropriate biblical connections, and apply to the culture only where the text leads to the application. Forced isogesis does no good to anyone.
3. The sermon listener has a right to ask questions. In most places it's not polite to raise a hand and question, that's a shame. Anyone in my congregation is welcome to do so at any time, though perhaps I should tell them that. If it's not polite to question on the spot, a preacher should still expect to hear questions as they file out, during coffee hour, adult education, or even weeks later. Be prepared. And if you don't know the answer, admit it and go find out.
4. The sermon listener has a right to a retraction if after preaching a sermon a serious theological error in the sermon later comes to light. If you were wrong, don't sweep it under the rug. People's spiritual lives depend on our good reporting. If you screw up, speak out of turn, utter bad theology, admit it at the next opportunity.
5. Sermon listeners have a right to a decent presentation. Ducking behind your notes, reading into the pulpit, never acknowledging their presence, these things may not harm your reputation as a theologian, but they won't do any favors for your relationships and pastoral care. A good sermon badly presented is a bad sermon.
6. Sermon listeners have a right to substance. Pithy statements, no matter how biblical they may be, are not helpful. Cliches, meandering, skimming the surface, sugary thoughts and watered down content do not help anyone. A bad sermon well presented is still a bad sermon. It doesn't matter how slick the packaging, junk food is junk food.
7. Sermon listeners have a right to hear and understand. Learn to use your voice. If you have people who are hard of hearing or if you just have a gentle voice, use a mike. You may hate the microphone (I do) and think you have a good solid speaking voice (I think I do), but if they tell you they can't hear you, use the boost. Sometimes they need a little extra help. And microphone or no microphone, learn to enunciate each word. Please.
8. Sermon listeners have a right to sermons that have purpose. Think about what you're trying to accomplish in the pulpit. Why are you there? What is the goal of your sermon? No secular writer writes without having a specific purpose, but most sermons are presented as "well we have to do this every week" which makes it feel very much like a dull duty to preach, and even more so to endure the resulting sermon. Don't preach because you have to. Don't preach out of habit. You'll produce Christians who only do their duty, and grudgingly at that.
9. Sermon listeners have a right to some joy. It's the word of God, how much more exciting can it get? Love what you do, or let someone else do the preaching. Have enthusiasm for the text and your people will too. But if your sermons are dry and dusty, they'll have a dry and dusty faith.
10. Sermon listeners have a right to be formed. Understand that they're not always going to be where you want them to be. It's a journey, make progress. Radical tranformation is the goal, but it often happens little by little over time. Understand that your words will be formative, one way or another. George Herbert once said, "sermons are dangerous things, that none goes out of church as he came in, but either better or worse." Your words hold power.
11. And finally, quite often your words are not your own. Sermon listeners have a right to hear the Holy Spirit preach from the pulpit. Sometimes all we can do is set our own agendas aside and get out of the way. Submit your will to the one who authored the text, call on his name. If you preach in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, know that you are claim God's authority and calling down his Spirit to make demands on you according to his will. Invoke his name with holy fear, willingness, and humility.
If you're good to me, maybe next week I'll write a preacher's bill of rights... hmmm... and if I have time.

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