"Read my lips: No more sermons"

July 27, 2011

Mary Brown took to HuffPost Religion recently to highlight a Lilly-funded study that asked laypeople what they want out of sermons. In short, it appears we want the following:

  • Spiritual leadership
  • Inspiration for spiritual growth
  • "Serious spiritual content about the Bible"
  • An impact on our lives

Oh, so that's all! Leaving aside the question of what we want vs. what we might need--and assuming an expansive definition of "spiritual"--this seems a pretty reasonable list of criteria for a good sermon. The difficulty, of course, is in how to preach in a way that effectively accomplishes all this--and, as Brown notes, how to find the preparation time.

What's more helpful than this summary of the study's findings is Brown's own point on the subject of lay opinions about preaching:

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.

Those of you who are pastors and/or preachers: what kinds of helpful conversations have you had with parishioners on the subject of preaching?

Also: how might you respond if this comment left on Brown's post came from someone at your church?

I've got an idea: read my lips--NO MORE SERMONS! just stop preaching. We laypeople are now literate. We can read books on our own or take classes. We don't need clergy teaching or preaching at us. The very idea of a sermon is offensive: a lecture where we can't argue back or even ask questions. And so is the very idea of clergy as authorities or intellectual leaders--when in many congregations most laypeople are as educated or better educated.

So shut up already. NO MORE SERMONS. Give us liturgy, sacraments and mystery, and stop the talk. You have nothing to say us.

There's obviously much to argue with here. Is all public speaking offensive? Is preaching just about authority? Is authority based in education? Where are these churches where most people are at least as educated as the pastor, so that I can avoid ever, ever participating in their committee meetings?

I'm curious, however, about potential pastoral responses--because I suspect that HuffPost commenter hebaber, however vitriolic his/her tone, is not the only churchgoer who feels this way.



I wouldn't mind a congregation that was at least as educated as the pastor. There's nothing worse, in my experience, than those that think they know so much but really don't.

sermons are offensive?

It's a lovely idea to think that lay people are engaged and eager to take responsibility for their own learning and growth. Unfortunately, I think it's more of a fiction than a reality. While people may be ABLE to do all of the things this critic suggests, the fact is that many don't. The ongoing (and shocking) levels of biblical/theological illiteracy and outright apathy make me fairly confident that there is a future for sermons.

No more sermons

That I have nothing to say to a congregation is probably true.  I do believe that the Spirit does have something to say.  Every time I fill a pulpit I pray that the message to be delivered is God's and not my own.  Sometimes that is the case, other times it is not.  But I try to stay out of the way in every case.

No more sermons

Perhaps it's when we believe that we have the Word, rather than we're vessels for the Word, that we lose our way and perhaps become road blocks to the message.  When that happens, preaching becomes a chore rather than the proclamation.


As a pastor, the only thing that gives me the courage to stand in front of God's people and preach is that I am not telling my story but God's story.  I do not have anything worthwhile to say, but God does.  Just as the Holy Spirit is responsible for Scripture so can the Spirit be part of a sermon, if the preacher can somehow get out of the way.

interactive sermons

I've done some "preaching" in my small congregation that is actually more of a group Bible study; I ask members of the congregation to prepare in advance by studying the passage in question. They've been rather shy, but have been getting bolder the more we do it. And I have to admit that I'm not as consistent with it as I could be. Still, I feel it's worth the effort to give opportunity for some multi-way dialogue with scripture in the liturgy.

No More Sermons

I am a part time pastor, and therefore preach about every other week. On the Sunday's I don't preach, we do a variety of different things.

I do not think sermons are worthless, but I do think that a variety of worship content--and speakers--is the best way to invite the widest range of people into the worship experience.

Also, after I preach there is a time for silent reflection and then a time for people in the congregation to respond to the sermon. So while I can't completely agree with the critic's comments, I think some of the points have merit.

growing in a weak community

Two concerns I would have to share with the commenter: (1) I may or may not not be too concerned with his take on preaching, but I wonder about the business of growing up in Christ's Spirit-community. Intellectually self-sufficient folk seem to cut themselves off from one of Christ's gifts (such as prophesy, evangelism, and teaching cf Eph. 4) for reaching "unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and becom(ing) mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ." And (2), what if deep Spirit-ministry happens with one another THROUGH our weaknesses? Is he suggesting he'll only receive ministry from someone with the appropriate prowess and credentials? Would he have entertained the apostle Paul, full of weakness and void of eloquence and human wisdom (cf. 1 Cor. 2)?

no sermons

I have one reflection on this idea from the dust of my own life. I graduated from a 4-year undergraduate school with a degree in theology and pastoral ministry. I have a masters from a local seminary. I am well educated in an honest dialogue with scripture and even its original languages. Still, I have caught myself on a couple of occasions saying (while looking for a church) that I didn't need a brilliant sermon every week. I knew how to do THAT. I just needed the community and social aspects of a church. USUALLY, it is about that time that I hear a sermon that hits me between the eyes to remind me that the Spirit wants me to be open to those who would speak. I need a sermon, otherwise, I can really buy into my own delusions and build really good cases for why I am right about everything. I need the interaction with the word that comes from someone with a different life experience than my own.

No more sermons

I have had that critic in my congregation. I have had my sermons critiqued by congregation members with and without my encouragement. Too often the conversations have little to do with the content. When such people as the critic come forward to face me I welcome the opportunity to share a journey to deepening our faith together. Paul told the Romans he hoped to share a gift with them and hoped that he and they would be mutually strengthened.

Paul understood what we also understand: A "sermon" is not so much a homilectic masterpiece as an opening of a conversation that reminds us that the Third Party has called us into the conversation. Peter draws no lines of distinction when he tells his readers to "speak as the oracles" of God. That is the privilege and burden for all of us in Christ.

There have been times that I have entered the pulpit ready to tell the congregation that immediately after reading the scripture we can either discuss the passage or dismiss, because I have no word worth sharing. However, each time, upon opening my mouth the Lord fills it with something substantial. I approach the message in this way: It is a given that God loves me and desires that I grow through speech-acts as well as praxis. But more importantly he loves everyone in the congregation and will not deny them the Word of Life, despite the unfinished roughness of the servant before them. 


A seminary professor of mine was fond of telling us that above all, the criticism and/or praise pastors and preachers receive is primarily nothing but DATA.  Data, it is primarily information about the person making the criticism or offering the praise.  As a pastor when faced by criticism my first task must be wonder why this person is so offended.  This data can be a valuable gateway into a relationship and future transformation.  As much as we pastors might not like it, the great majority of the feedback we receive, both negative AND positive, is actually more about the person giving the feedback than it is about the pastor.  When someone tearfully thanks a preacher for an "awesome sermon" it isn't that the sermon was necessarily phenomenal but rather that due to that person's life and spiritual situation the Holy Spirit used, perhaps even a cruddy sermon, to speak truth and grace in a language beyond the preacher's ability.  It is all Data, well, at least 90% of it is.

Good preaching is dialog

There is nothing harder than preaching to a congregation one does not know.  Good preaching is always dialog. Sometimes the dialog takes place during the sermon between the pastor and his/her people; but even when it does not, the sermon that has any hope of connecting is one built on an ongoing dialog between people and pastor. Listening to my congregation has been the best preaching instruction I've ever had.

Then there is the other dialog--the one that takes place after the people leave the church. My mother taught me that dialog long ago.  We attended a small, rural church in southeastern Missouri. Our pastors were always more theologically conservative than my parents. After church, Mom would often start a conversation by saying, "Brother ______ said this morning . . . but when I think about that text, it seems to me that it might mean . . . ."  With that lead-in she would then invite me into a conversation that served most of all to instruct me that thinking, as well as feeling, was part of growing spiritually.

So, I will continue to preach, seeking to keep the sermons flowing from the dialog, inviting the congregation to talk back to me, and praying that when they leave the real dialog begins.