Showing posts with label Preaching. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Preaching. Show all posts

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Preaching - Whose needs are being met?

I enjoyed a short piece on the America Magazine blog entitled, "Preaching and feedback."

As I listen to sermons, the two big questions that ring in my head as I am feeling bored, annoyed, and having to strain to follow the thread of the sermon are:

Why is the preacher telling us this?


Why did the preacher pick this topic to preach on? Is it something of  interest to the preacher or does the preacher, for some reason, think that the congregation needs to hear this?

For the life of me, with many of the sermons I have heard in my lifetime, I have no clues on how to answer these two questions.

It would be nice if preachers maybe met with the pulpit committee and negotiated some themes over the the coming church year. It also would be nice if there were powerful enough sermons that they led to some spirited discussions and feedback on the topic.

I have no experience of this happening in my church except very rarely.

If you would like to read the short essay in America Magazine click here.

Having said all this, I have pretty much stopped going to church.

 Church attendance in all mainline churches in the United States and first world countries is rapidly dropping. Apparently, what churches are offering their communities is no longer relevant enough or compelling enough to motivate attendance.

Apparently, I am not alone in my absence. Football, and shopping seem to be much more popular or perhaps just sleeping in. When you can get 80,000 people in a football stadium and millions more on TV, but you're lucky if you can get 80 people in a church on Sunday, something is seriously amiss with religion in America.

The absence is not about a lack of entertainment, but a lack of meaning. If I am going to make the effort to drive 22 miles on a Sunday morning and sit in a large space for 60 + minutes, it has to be worth the time, effort, and expense. For me and increasing numbers of other people, it is not. People vote with their feet.

So, it is unclear who the preachers think they are talking to, and why they are preaching what they are preaching. The sermons seem unrelated to spiritual struggles of the audience and without relevance they will continue to preach to empty pews. When the church becomes irrelevant to life in society, it loses its function and will die. We are witnessing its slow death and in another twenty years, unless there is a significant revival, most mainline churches, like many species will be extinct.

Who are the Bills playing this week?

Monday, April 29, 2019

What are the criteria for a good sermon? Here are four.

God, I have sat through some boring sermons. I don't know if it's me or the preaching really is insipid, dry, and incoherent.

I sit there and wonder to myself, "What is the point? Why is the preacher telling us this? What am I supposed to do with this information? How does this message apply to my life, to our life, to the world? Why don't I feel spiritually nutured? Why am I annoyed, angry, struggling to pay attention?"

And then I wonder if this church is for me. Maybe I should seek out another group, another church, where the weekly messages are more relevant, more inspiring, more informative, more challenging.

So, I have been thinking a lot over the last year or so about what makes a good sermon. I went on the web and looked for articles that address this question and didn't find anything that seems really satisfying to me,so I thought I would write some of my own ideas.

First and foremost a good sermon has to be articulate and coherent. I can't tell you how many times I am listening to a sermon and 7 minutes into it I wonder what in hell the preacher is talking about. I ask myself, "What is the preacher's point?" and for the life of me I can't figure it out. There is something wrong with such a sermon. A good sermon should be making 2 or 3 good points - no more and no less. If at the end of 20 minutes, 75% of the congregation can't say what the main points of the sermon are, the sermon failed.

Secondly, a good sermon has to be relevant to the audience. I can't tell you how often I felt that the sermon was a form of intellectual masturbation. In Unitarian Universalism there is the tradition of the free pulpit, but this doesn't mean that sermons are a sole exercise for the amusement and edification of the preacher. They should be relevant to the congregation. They should resonate with the congregation. There should be a rapport and a connection with the congregation. You can measure this by the congregation's attention and nonverbal reactions. I look around at my fellow congregants and they look either dead or like Mona Lisa with a wan smile and I wonder to myself what they are making out of the what the preacher is saying. A good sermon should provide a message of utility that the congregant can apply to his/her life, to his/her family life, work life, community life, national life. Platitudes and cliches can be familiar, amusing, and recognizable, but I often don't find them terribly applicable in any way that I haven't discovered before. So, I wonder if the preacher is being lazy, hasn't thought too hard about how the message being delivered connects with the congregation and is relevant to their lives. I often feel annoyed and frustrated when I hear myself, saying to myself as I am listening to the message, "Yeah, so what!?" or "OK, that's nice, what am I supposed to do with that?" If at the end of the sermon, 75% of the congregation can't say how the message is relevant to their lives and their relationships with others, the sermon has failed.

Third, a good sermon should be spiritually nourishing, inspiring, motivating so that I can become a better person, and want to make my relationships more righteous and satisfying, and I am encouraged to make the world a better place. We have learned in psychology that intellecutal insight itself doesn't lead to change. Intellectual insight can be satisfying to a certain extent, but it can also be dry and lack any heart. A good sermon is full of heart and love. If there is no heart and no love it is, as St. Paul said in Corinthians 13: "...just a resounding gong, or a clanging cymbal." People go to church to be spiritually fed, to have their spirit and their souls nourished. As Emerson said in his Divinity School Address, if the preaching is dry, is dead, there is no life and without life, things die. If at the end of the sermon, 75% of the congregation does not have an increase in energy rather than a decrease, or the same that existed at the start of the service, the sermon has failed.

Fourth, a good sermon is not safe but challenging. It pushes the congregants a bit out of their comfort zone. People should come away from a good sermon reved up, with their energy boosted, with a new determination to become a better person, to live a better life, to love others and the world with a renewed determination and increased effort. A good sermon is not satisfied with the status quo, is not afraid to go against the grain a bit, to enlarge the congregations view and comfort with the existing world as they know it. Growth requires challenge, it requires that a person and/or a group desire to be and become a little more than they are now. To play it safe, to protect the status quo, to validate existing norms which are unjust, dysfunctional, ineffective, discriminatory, or allows people to simply tolerate injustice, ugliness, oppression, and inequality does a disservice to the congregation even if it does promote job security for the preacher and a certain comfort level for the congregation that employs the preacher. If at the end of the sermon, 75% of the congregation don't feel challenged to change their lives and their world in some positive way, the sermon has failed.

Sitting through church services where sermons are incoherent, irrelevant, dry and boring, and unchallenging is not only a waste of time and effort, but damaging to the soul of the church for without vision and leadership the people will fail, the church will die. For churches without liturgy, without a sacred book, the cornerstone is good preaching. Without good preaching the church is in peril of survival. What are the criteria you use to determine whether a sermon is good or not? Leave us comments, please.

For a video with comments click here.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

The importance of good preaching in Unitarian Universalism

I continue to think about churches as organizations and as I reflect I wonder what Unitarian Universalism has going for it?

Having been raised as a Roman Catholic, I am very aware and have experienced church as liturgical and sacramental. The rituals, the ceremonies, the music, the pomp and circumstance, the architecture, the holy objects in the form of the crucifix and statues and candles are very important. Also the celebration of the seven sacraments: baptism, Holy Communion, Reconciliation (confession), Confirmation, Marriage, Holy Orders, and Last Rites all occur at important transition points in the human life cycle.

In the Protestant movement, the Catholic adoration of statues etc. was seen as blasphemous and idolatrous. The Bible became central and Jews, Muslims, and Protestants are known as The People Of The Book because they all seem to worship and hold holy their written word, their holy books.

Unitarian Univeralism does not have a liturgy, sacraments, and outside of the flaming chalice any holy and sacred objects. Nor does it have a holy book. What Unitarian Universalism has are its 7 Principles/Values, its preaching, and its fellowship. It seems to me that the important element of Unitarian Universalist practice is its preaching and fellowship. The cornerstone of UU worship and communal life are the sermons, the weekly messages that should inform, inspire, challenge, and above all else encourage religious practice to facilitate spiritual growth in congregants and in the world.

The source of knowledge, skills, and values to inform the message comes from multiple sites, traditions, origins, and it is a very wise minister who knows what the congregation needs to hear, needs to be touched by, needs to be inspired with. How do ministers gather this knowledge, this insight, this wisdom?

It comes from relationship. Relationship first and foremost with oneself. Next, in comes from relationship with the people the minister aspires to serve. Third, it comes from a knowledge of and relationship with the wider world. A good minister can read the signs of the times, views the world through a compassionate and prophetic lens. A good minister is not afraid to call a spade a spade, to take the bull by the horns, to put words to the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful. Waffling and playing it safe leads to ambiguity, frustration, and gossip among the people. Taking a clear stand and position is the sine qua non of good leadership.

Unitarian Universalism has a weak religious structure. It has no liturgy; it has no book; it has no hierarchy; it has a very democratic consensus driven model of governance which makes it hard for leadership to emerge and manifest. Therefore, Unitarian Univeralism is doomed to mediocrity unless it can facilitate the development of powerful preachers. There are a few around. Thank God for the Internet because their sermons are available for downloading.

It is interesting to observe that the UU churches with good preachers are the largest in the country and seem to be growing. Those with lackluster preaching are either just maintaining or in decline.

The future of Unitarian Univeralism depends on many things and yet as far as the weekly life of the church is concerned, it depends greatly on the quality of good preaching.

This article, written by David G. Markham,  first appeared on the Chalicefire blog on 04/22/08 and is reprinted here with permission. For a video explanation about the re-publishing of these articles, click here.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

What is one of the most important functions of the UU preacher?

Providing visioning is one of the most important functions of the UU preacher

Erika Hewitt, in her book, The Shared Pulpit: A Sermon Seminar for Lay People, asks from whence authority is derived for the UU Pulpit? She writes on page 14, “Our authority to speak from the pulpit comes from the gathered community: our congregation. By sharing in their authority, we speak on their behalf. We speak on behalf of all Unitarian Univeralists.”

The word “authority” comes from the same word as “author.” An author is a person who originates or gives  existence to something. What is this something which the author brings into the joint life of the congregation?

There are many answers to this question. One of the best answers might be “vision.” It is written in Proverbs 29:18, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

One of the most important functions of the preacher is to provide an articulation of the joint hopes, dreams, and aspirations of the congregation to which they can commit and contribute.. The preacher is putting into words what the collective body intends for its joint life and its relationship with the world.  In the process of articulating these hopes, dreams, and aspirations, the preacher also names the things which are mutually valued.

The preacher is not imposing a vision but is a steward of the collective vision which is made up of the personal visions of the individual members of the congregation. The preacher knows his/her audience and has taken their expectations and requirements for congregational functioning and creates a shared description of the future state that the congregation hopes to create. The preacher is able to describe the current state of affairs and what is hoped for. There is a gap between what currently exists and a preferred future state. The preacher provides ideas and encouragement to bridge this gap.

The preacher, in describing the vision, addresses three aspects: the what, the why, and the how. What is the preferred future state, why is it preferred, and some ways in which it can be achieved.

With helping in creating this vision for congregational life, the preacher is a catalyst for creative energy that nurtures congregational life so that it may grow and prosper, and not perish.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

How not to preach

From "How Not To Preach" by Rev. John J. Conley in the 02/02/15 issue of America:
1. It’s all about you. Keep the sermon strictly autobiographical. Your congregation is dying to know all about your last vacation. There’s no need to discuss that pesky reading about Abraham and Isaac and the knife.
I recently heard a sermon about a priest’s socks. Father explained how difficult it is to keep pairs of socks together. He noted his preferred detergent for washing socks and the advantages of using a clothesline over a dryer. He said there was a controversy over whether priests should wear all-black socks or whether they could add stripes. (News to me.) We kept waiting for the spiritual punchline. Was the lost sock like the lost sheep in the parable of the Good Shepherd? It remained a mystery. The sermon concluded with the revelation that he found doing the laundry difficult at times.
On a darker note, I once heard a sermon in which the preacher discussed the problem of resentment. The theme matched the Gospel, which featured the apostles’ jealous squabbling among themselves. Warming to his subject, the preacher described his own resentment against his brother (the prize-winning athlete), his sixth-grade teacher (too critical) and then his dear mother (too distant). As we cringed into our missalettes, I wondered if Doctor Phil would rush from the sacristy to take over the bathos in the sanctuary.
You were not ordained to tell your own story. You were ordained to proclaim someone else’s.
I would add that there is no need for a travelogue. 
At one UU church I attended for a few years one of the regular pulpit fills traveled about 35 miles to the church and would begin every sermon with a description of the scenery she observed while driving: the shape of the clouds, the geese she saw flying, the color of the leaves on the trees, the rain, snow, sunshine. I used to wonder what is the stipend you are receiving for this? Did you forget that we all drove here too and saw the same stuff? I mean connecting with nature is nice but I can get better on the National Geographic Channel. I suppose if it was just once, or done to make a point, but every sermon started with her travel report. I stopped attending the services when she was preaching. She was a nice person and meant well but must have skipped or slept through Homilectics 101.
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