On the Art of the Sermon

I am late with this. My pastor retired at the end of June. My televangelists of the past mocked the idea of pastors retiring. I don’t think any of them really retire from ministry. Their ministry just takes on a different kind of practice, so I don’t begrudge them their retirement. I have been in churches all my life, but I think this was the first time I was there to see a pastor give his or her final message before retirement.

What I’m doing here, though, he might question. He said he sent all his old sermons to the recycling bin. Though he meant every word of those sermons at the time he preached them, he said, “something goes out of them after their preached, and … they’re done.”

I was a little sad to hear that. I had often wondered if he would ever collect his sermons into a book. Apparently not. I would have bought that book. If you’ll forgive me Dr. Bailey, I don’t think this last sermon is done, so I’m going to share for those who weren’t there some highlights. He said a number of interesting things about the art of ministry and preaching sermons. For anyone who has ever wondered how pastors feel about the enormous task of proclaiming the word of God, I think you’ll appreciate his insights.

He said he gave his first sermon on July 4, 1982, called “New Beginnings.” This one, the last before retirement, he called “A Couple of Thousand Sermons Later.” That alone says a lot about why he is qualified to give advice on how to write and deliver a sermon. He thanked not only us but his former congregations for having “open minds, a sense of humor, and forgiving hearts.” No pastor can last long without that.

He believed pastoring a congregation was based on two foundations.

  1. Relationships of trust built by being a faithful friend and pastor.
  2. A willingness to continually go through the process of wrestling with scripture, prayerfully seeking from it what is God’s message for today, and delivering that message in a way that makes sense and makes a difference.

I’m not the only member who will attest he did very well on both counts. I think that’s why when at times he said some things I knew a lot of the congregation did not agree with, they did not push back too hard or try to get him fired. They already considered him a faithful friend and pastor, and they knew he would not say anything from the pulpit without honestly wrestling with the scripture and prayerfully seeking from it God’s message for us. That is where the ability to speak the truth in love served him well. He could let you know where he stood without being confrontational about it.

I Am a “Dinosaur”

Looking back to when he was interviewing for this position, he told the nominating committee that he was “a dinosaur.” It seemed the megachurches had brought a new style of worship that included rock bands, short film segments, multi-media presentations, light shows, and stadium seating. That was not his style, and he hoped that there were some people who still found the traditional style of worship appealing.

Though sometimes I feel like I’m a dying breed, I am among those who still find the traditional style of worship appealing when it’s done well. In fact, a few years ago, I watched video of a megachurch service with all the bells and whistles that usually come with that. When I was younger, that would have appealed to me. But now it seems I’m at a point in my life where I want church to be church. That includes corporate and responsive prayers, singing of hymns, music from a choir (traditional or contemporary), reading of scripture, reading of the Apostles’ Creed or something similar, and a sermon that explains the scripture well.

Pastors Work More than One Hour

Most of the sermon was focused on the art of preaching itself. It is not the only part of pastoring, just the most visible. The pastor actually does work more than one hour per week. I remember in seminary, I heard a professor say you should plan on one hour of preparation per minute of your sermon. So if your sermon is 15-20 minutes, that means about 15-20 hours of preparation. And that does not include other duties like committee meetings, hospital and home visits, weddings, funerals, counseling, et al, and I was blessed to experience his wisdom and grace in all those capacities.

In an age when we are bombarded with media of different kinds competing for our attention, preaching is challenging today. It requires sustained attention from both the preacher and the listeners, and while megachurches have many tools to keep your attention, the traditional preacher only has words.

As a writer, I think that is what I appreciate about the art of a traditional sermon. I know what it’s like to have to determine not only what I want to say but what are the right words to say it. As Mark Twain said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is … the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” So I appreciate pastors who know how to capture the lightning. Pastoring requires regular writing on a deadline that has to communicate the word of God to the listeners, which is why I don’t understand why more pastors don’t collect their best sermons into a book, Dr. Bailey’s comments about them being “done” notwithstanding.

Complete Honesty

He realized early in his career that effective preaching required complete honesty. And so he would confess some things about himself in sermons that he would rather not tell us in private conversation. Because of that, it was always a challenge when he had to preach more than once on the same day, as when we did multiple services to accommodate Covid restrictions. I never heard him complain about it, though perhaps he did in private. But throughout the Covid crisis, his first concern was our safety. So if that meant preaching multiple sermons to keep social distancing or putting more effort into directing people to the church’s YouTube channel, or just doing things that were uncomfortable, he was willing to do it. And I agree that honesty is truly necessary for effective preaching.

Some Sundays, he felt like he had completely failed to get the most important points across. But then as he greeted people at the end of the service, someone would enthusiastically tell him that something he had said really made a difference for them. Then there were other Sundays where he felt great about both the sermon and delivery, but afterwards someone would ask, “Are you okay?” I imagine anyone who speaks in public regularly can relate to that.

How to Stay Encouraged with Low Turnout

On Sundays when people commented there was a low turnout, it never discouraged him. He said he was always amazed that anyone showed up. He knew most of the reasons people show up had nothing to do with him. But even so, he said, “I hope you will allow me to say that your presence here … is and has been the most wonderful affirmation for me that you believe God has called us into partnership to be a community of faith together.”

Lightning. The pastor is the leader of the congregation, but he is not the whole show. I don’t trust pastors who take an authoritarian approach, a model that is sometimes called shepherding, where the pastor’s word is law. As Dr. Bailey said, church should be a partnership, not only between pastor and parishoners, but within the congregation as well. I joined the church because I liked the pastor and his sermons, but also because there were people there who made me feel welcome from the beginning, especially in my Sunday School class. Going there feels like a family reunion, where there are families with multiple generations represented, and you know you are already loved even before you walk into the building. That is what I think being a community of faith together means.

The Privilege of Focusing on God’s Word

“It’s an amazing privilege in one’s job to be able to study and pray over God’s word at length and then attempt to bring that word to others, and to have people show up to engage you in that enterprise with you.”

Lightning again. Though I am not ordained, I feel most alive when I am able to study and pray over God’s word at length and then attempt to bring that word to others. That is why I started this blog. It’s a sign of his humility and grace that he recognizes that is a privilege, one that no preacher should take for granted, to be able to do that, and have others around who believe in you enough to pay you to do that, not for them but with them.

Hope, Joy, Good News, and Challenge

“My hope and prayer is that in the long run, the sermons have brought mostly hope and joy and good news to people as well as the challenge to live the way God calls us to live in Jesus Christ.”

Lightning again. I’ve heard some preachers say they only want to bring hope, joy, and good news to people. I’ve heard others who complain about them, saying speaking the truth of God’s word needs to challenge people and convict them of their sin, but they don’t have much to say that is encouraging. The way he described it strikes the right balance. He hoped that his sermons brought mostly hope, joy, and good news, while also recognizing living the way God calls us to live in Jesus Christ is a challenge, and preachers need to be honest about that. Again, speaking the truth in love goes a long way to earning your parishioners’ trust.

Truth-telling and Ambiguity

He quoted a line from Frederick Buechner, one of my favorite authors. Buechner called the sermon “… a creative type of truth-telling that is willing to live with ambiguity, willing to live with unanswered questions rather than presuming to have all the answers.”

I wish more preachers today would take that to heart. Too many of them presume to have all the answers, maybe because they never learned to live with unanswered questions. You’re human. It’s okay to admit you don’t have all the answers. But they have to make you think they know everything, so they quote a Bible verse or two, usually out of context, and say, “This is the word of God,” meaning there is no more room for discussion, no possibility that they might not see the whole picture.

I heard one Jewish woman say, “Jews open the scriptures to begin a conversation. Christians open the scriptures to end a conversation.” Like most statements of this nature, that is true–to an extent. But I agree Jewish tradition is much open to conversation than Christian tradition. Opening the scriptures, and hence sermons, should be an invitation to further thought and discussion. Yes, there are some things I think are the Truth (with a capital T), and I try not to compromise them. But even then, I have room in my thinking for honest and thoughtful debate. On most of my posts I make my opinions clear. But I take the time to explain why I think or believe the way I do, and I’m always hopeful that people will use the comments section to share why they agree or disagree. Most of the time, I am looking to begin a conversation, not end it.

New Beginnings

His final prayer for us: “I pray that God who began a good work in you will bring it to completion in the day of Jesus Christ. And I pray that you will continue to open your hearts and your ears and your mind to those who will stand here in the pulpit in the future, attempting to the best of their ability to tell the truth.”

In other words, he hopes we will treat the next pastor the same way we treated him. And he hopes we will continue our partnership of being a community of faith together with whoever is next to occupy our pulpit.

Presbyterians don’t usually applaud, but we gave him a standing ovation. Even the “frozen chosen” have moments when we must show our appreciation. I said in an earlier post I think the next pastor will have big shoes to fill. But if he/she (yes, women can be pastors, at least in PCUSA) honestly wrestles with the scriptures to give us the truth to the best of their ability, is a faithful pastor and friend who invites us to join in their work of carefully studying God’s word and trying to draw from it God’s message for us, whose preaching invites conversation rather than shutting it down, and who offers hope, joy, and encouragement in the challenging work of living as God in Jesus Christ calls us to live, I for one will accept them with an open mind, a sense of humor, and a forgiving heart.


Thank you for reading. Feel free to leave a comment or question below. No trolling, but I am happy to engage in honest discussion and debate. As always, remember these words from Matthew 7:12.

In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.

(NRSV)

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