My Dad’s a good preacher. He isn’t the lift the roof off the rafters type. Nor is he egg-heady with scattered references to German theologians. And he isn’t a daily living preacher, either. He doesn’t do genre. He does story and he tries to make sense of the gospel and what people are dealing with in our common moment. And given that my Dad is a really pastoral priest, that people call him a good preacher means something to me.
Of the hundreds of my Dad’s sermons I have encountered, there is one aspect of preaching that always stuck out at me: that people would look at their watch so he would know that he had gone over the totally arbitrary 10 minute mark. Not the lives the good news has changed, not the people who finally come back to church because a priest is saying truths the church prefers to hide. No. He would get dinged for going on a little long.
Not many would do this. And some of those who did this are fantastic people. And I kind of get it. But what they don’t know is that we need to hear 7 positive things to balance every single criticism we receive. Our brains have a way of fixating on the criticism and ignoring the complements. So those comments about the time stick around long after they’ve been said.
Of course, I come from a tradition, the Episcopal Church, which has a more Roman Catholic approach to preaching. The sermon or the homily is only part of the liturgy, not the centerpiece. It is only a piece of what we expect our priests to do, rather than the biggest part. And one really important distinction is that this moment is liturgical, sacramental; it isn’t so much teaching.
This isn’t the case in all denominations. Some worship leaders have the title “teaching pastor” which means their primary job is to preach a teaching sermon. In that world, the sermon as teaching model is pretty well established.
Shifting our focus to Sunday
An observation I made a few years ago was this. We can’t get people to come to Adult Ed classes. People are feeling stressed and the two-day commitment to church (Sunday and one other day, Wednesday?) is gone. Programs between the services haven’t been working. Certainly the need for formation is there, but the participation is not.
The same people already come most Sundays. They’re there. And they really do think of that Sunday morning as their time with church. They think that this is the time of not only worship, but learning. They are seeking to learn in church and to have something change for them or to have something they can take away from the service each week.
So it became obvious to me that we don’t just make Sunday our day, Sunday morning our time, but we actually make that 60-75 minutes of worship time into the primary formation time. It makes sense because it is the only time we have.
But to be honest, I’m not very comfortable with it.
There is more to teach than can be contained in 10-15 minutes of preaching. There is more formation that has to take place than the hour on Sunday morning. We don’t get to be Christians for an hour and then pretend we are the other 167 that week.
What I’m doing
I’ve decided to do as much teaching as I can. A Bible Study, Basics classes, Sunday and Thursday sermons, writing and blogging. I keep filling up my plate and looking for new space on the plate for teaching.
I am also taking seriously that hour I have on Sunday morning; and the thirty minutes before and after the service, too.
I am doing both/and. Because I don’t honestly think Sunday is enough. We need more than Sunday. We also need to take advantage of what we have and when we have people.
We also have a Biblical deficit in church. Many of us don’t feel like we know our Scripture very well. And we don’t know the church’s foundational stories. We aren’t comfortable sharing them. So I am focused at this point in my vocation on that: on telling the story (and deconstructing the story) so that people can get what all the fuss is about. I try to convey why the gospel has juice!
My hope is that the repetition will get the people to know the story better.
For instance: several weeks ago, we had a story from Mark 7 about a pair of healings. The first one is the famous “even the dogs get the scraps” passage. So I’m still referencing that the next week when we move to Mark 8 and we’re talking identity (“who do the people say that I am”) and Jesus predicts his death. Then we’re still talking identity and passion the next few weeks. But now, we’re starting to see that Jesus is talking about the Kingdom now, isn’t he? He’s talking about the Kingdom and all these people who possess the Kingdom: the children, the women, the divorced, the sick. That woman from a month and a half ago now. These people Jesus is interacting with are all revealing the Kingdom to a world that doesn’t want to see it yet. [Here’s what I did this week.]
So I have become laser-focused on the gospel. And I’m breaking the rules about how I’m only supposed to have one theme or start with a story. I feel like we’ve got lots of story here, and we’ve got 10-15 minutes to learn about a tiny snippet of the big story and we’ve all totally forgotten last week’s gospel, let alone 3 weeks or 6 weeks ago. How are we supposed to learn, really learn the story if we don’t go over it? And if we don’t teach it.
Maybe this isn’t the best approach there is. And maybe it won’t make me a Craddock. But if it makes me a Downs, I’ll take it.
How do you hear on Sunday morning? How do you listen? Do you let the gospel in?
When you are encountering preaching, do you prepare yourself to learn? Are you aware of your presence in a space in which the gospel might upend your expectations? Do you accept the challenge or do you demand trigger warnings and to view the manuscript to make sure it doesn’t offend?
When you preach, do you accept the call to enlighten? To provoke? To open the gospel to another in such a way as they may, perhaps for the first time, truly hear it?
In what ways do you open up your congregation’s sermon time to multiple learning styles? Do you use dialogue or small groups? Experiential projects or prayer stations? Do you incorporate art in a Godly Play/Montessori reflection approach? Or is it only lecture?
And if you are open to more teaching in the sermon time, how can you communicate that to your pastor? To the congregation? How might these other methods find their way into that essential hour?