Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Narrowing of Taste & Its Impact on Preaching

Today while listening to the Sirius/XM Deep Tracks channel I heard “Sue Me, Sue You Blues” from George Harrison’s 1973 album Living in the Material World. I used to own that album (vinyl, naturally) and wish I still did.

When I plunked down the money for the LP I was mainly interested in hearing the single “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth).” As I listened over and over to the disc, though, I came to like other songs on it even more, especially the title track and “Don’t Let Me Wait Too Long.” The thing is, though, that I had to listen to the entire album to find the variety of music and the hidden treasures on the record.

That’s the way we used to listen to music. Oh, we’d listen to the hit singles on our favorite radio station (WQXI FM out of Atlanta for me) but we’d buy the albums and listen to all the songs on them—over and over.

Hearing that old song from that favorite old album of mine got me to thinking about how the way people listen to music has changed. Listening to Top 40 radio back in 1973, we’d listen to whatever they played and we came to like all kinds of styles. Listing the artists who had the Top 10 hits of 1973 will make my point: Tony Orlando & Dawn, Jim Croce, Roberta Flack, Marvin Gaye, Paul McCartney & Wings, Kris Kristofferson, Elton John, Billy Preston, Carly Simon, and Diana Ross.

We took what we got from Top 40 radio and we took what we got from the albums we purchased and we learned to like a lot of it.

Things are different now.

We can, with our MP3 players, compile a playlist of only songs that fit our particular taste.

We can, if we subscribe to satellite radio, listen to stations that play only the styles of music that we like (I most often hit the preset buttons for Classic Vinyl, Classic Rewind, and Deep Tracks).

We only have to listen to what we really like; we can shut ourselves off from what we don’t like.

Come to think of it, we can do the same kind of thing with our choice of information outlets. Back in the day, your TV choices were pretty much limited to Cronkite on CBS and Huntley & Brinkley on NBC; my memory is that both presentations were middle-of-the-road. Now, though, if you’re a traditionalist you watch CNN, if you’re more conservative you watch FOX, and if you’re more liberal you watch MSNBC. But we watch the outlet that supports our viewpoint and that confirms our pre-conceived notions. Few of us bother to sample the offerings of all the outlets.

I think that all of this has implications for how people hear our preaching.

Simply put, they like what they like. They’re accustomed to narrowing their listening choices to what suits their artistic or ideological tastes. Aren’t they likely to bring that same mindset to church with them?

What if you’re a preacher who tries to preach the whole album—hidden treasures, boring cuts, daring experiments, and all—but your church is filled with people who have trained themselves to listen only to their favorite hits? What if you’re an NPR preacher—you know, one who tries to go into depth on the important stories of the Bible—but your church is filled with people who have been conditioned to listen only for the sound bites that support what they already think?

The narrowing of taste on the part of our listeners makes preaching these days quite a challenge.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Sit Down! And Shut Up?

One of my seminary professors told a story in class about a student who was invited to preach in a church in which the tradition was for the congregation to be more vocal in its responses than the type of reaction to which the young preacher was accustomed.

Not too far into his sermon a lady jumped up and shouted, “Sit down and shut up—you done spoke the truth!”

“And so,” our professor said, “he did.”

I have been trying lately to make some changes in my preaching, one of which is to be less tied to the lectern (the preacher’s security blanket) and to written notes (the preacher’s other security blanket). So, I’ve been moving around the pulpit area a bit more.

I’ve seen preachers move around the pulpit area to excess; I’ve even seen them leave the pulpit area and run up and down the aisles slapping deacons on the knee.

I don’t anticipate going that far.

One Sunday morning a few weeks ago, about three-fourths of the way through my sermon, I felt a tremendous urge to sit down. So I walked over to one of the pulpit chairs and had a seat.

Why? Because I suddenly felt very, very tired.

What made me so tired?

Was it the spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical toll of preaching my heart out not just that morning but for the past thirty-five years?

Was it the frustration and anxiety that often accompany my wondering if anyone is really listening?

Was it an impulse, in the middle of all that activity, to rest in the Lord?

By the way, I sat down but I didn’t shut up. I kept talking while seated and in a minute I got back up and kept talking.

I do hope and pray, though, that I was—that I am—speaking the truth.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

An Experiment in Preaching

A friend who in his late fifties took a new pastorate said that he had written the last sermon he ever intended to write, meaning that he planned to use the vast collection of sermons that he had built up over his career and produce nothing new.

I have in my paper and electronic files every sermon I have ever written; I even have the outlines, some of which were lifted straight out of the back of my trusty Thompson Chain Reference Bible, from my first halting efforts, which were quite different than my later halting efforts.

I have at times “re-preached” some of my “greatest hits”; in so doing I heeded the wise words of my wise father who once told me, “If it was worth preaching once it’s worth preaching twice.” And if it’s worth preaching twice maybe it’s worth preaching thrice or more!

Over the last twenty-five years I have written full manuscripts for 99% of the sermons that I’ve preached and 90% of the time I’ve taken that manuscript into the pulpit with me.

Last Sunday I began an experiment that consists of the following elements:

1. I am studying for and thinking about the sermon as always.

2. I am writing down the one main point that I want to get across.

3. I am seeking one good story, biblical or not, that will make the one main point.

4. I am writing down an introduction.

5. I am writing down a concluding sentence.

6. I am taking no notes with me into the pulpit.

7. I am trusting the Spirit and my experience; after all these years I should know both pretty well.

The thing about experiments is that sometimes they lead to helpful discoveries and sometimes they blow up in your face…

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Preaching to Everybody

It’s a funny line that really isn’t funny: “That must have been a great sermon, Preacher…I didn’t understand a word of it.”

I am concerned, though, that there are many times when many if not most of the people in the congregation would say something like that.

I say that not because I think that my sermons are all that hard to understand—although sometimes they are—but because of the variety that characterizes a congregation.

Over there sits someone who has been a seriously thoughtful Christian for fifty years; right in front of her sits someone who has never decided to follow Jesus.

Over there sits someone who hasn’t missed a worship service in decades; over to his left sits someone who is participating for the first time in decades.

Over there sits a 90 year old woman; two rows behind her sits a nine year old boy.

Over there sits a professional with a bachelor’s degree and two graduate degrees; on the other side of the room sits a laborer with a GED.

And we preachers are supposed to preach to everybody in the room, hopefully in a way that all of them can understand.

What do we need to remember?

(1) We should speak as plainly and simply as we can. All people need the simple truth of the good news.

(2) We should go into deep things as we feel led to do so. All people need to have their spiritual imaginations stretched; if someone’s gets stretched farther than it can sustain, maybe it will snap back to a helpful place.

(3) We should tell stories. Everybody likes, understands, and remembers stories.

(4) We should trust the Holy Spirit. The Spirit can and will communicate to someone what they need to hear, whether through or despite our words.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Preaching to the Dying

I have always had a keen sense of my mortality; perhaps it’s because I had to deal at any early age with the death of a loved one or perhaps it’s because I was blessed and/or cursed from my genesis with the awareness of my inevitable demise.

Whatever the reason, I am aware that I preach as a dying man speaking to dying people. At the end of my sermon we are all 20-25 minutes closer to dying than we were when I started.

What do dying people need to hear?

First, they need to hear an acknowledgement and affirmation of their mortality. Death is a fact of human life. That truth should not be morbidly dwelt upon but it should be freely acknowledged and its awareness should lie behind all we say. We do our listeners no good if we feed the culturally promoted illusion of permanence.

Second, they need to hear that they can experience God in loss and pain. Illness, injury, grief, functional decline—all of these create weakened and broken places where the grace of God can be especially experienced, which is good practice for receiving the grace we will need at the end.

Third, they need to hear the basic Christian truth that while life leads to death, death also leads to life. It is only in dying that we find everlasting life; it is only in dying to self that we find a life worth living.

Fourth, they need to hear about hope and faith. They need to hear about the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the promised resurrection of the dead. They need to hear about the impact of the resurrection on our mortal lives, about how the presence of the resurrected Christ gives us grounds for assurance and trust.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Preaching as Worship

Pastors do not preach in a vacuum; we preach in the context of a worship service the focus of which is on, or at least is supposed to be on, God.

It follows, then, that our sermons should contribute to that experience of worship by helping to focus the worshippers’ attention on God.

How can we preachers attempt to make that contribution?


1. We can avoid calling undue attention to ourselves. While we should do our best to engage our listeners, the purpose of that engagement is to call their attention to God.

2. We can avoid the reduction of preaching to moralizing. Preaching should alert people to or remind people of the grace of God and take away from and not add to a legalistic mindset.

3. We can avoid the reduction of preaching to “how to” lists. People need guidance on living but they need even more to know that God is with them in their daily lives.

4. We can avoid theorizing about God. Preaching is proclamation, not speculation.


1. We can remind the Church of the reality of God. Believe it or not, even Christian people forget.

2. We can call attention to the actions of God in history. That is, after all, the content of the Bibles on which we base our preaching. We should never fail to mention the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.

3. We can testify to our own experiences with God. While preachers need to avoid calling attention to themselves, we can appropriately talk about how we have experienced the God that we are trying to help our listeners experience.

4. We can create space for encounters with God. Neither the worship service nor the sermon should be filled with non-stop activity and words; space can be created for people to experience God.

Thursday, February 17, 2011


I don’t listen to a lot of rap or hip-hop music—I know, you’re shocked, deeply shocked, to hear that.

I am familiar, though, with the practice of “sampling” in many recordings in those genres. Basically, to sample is to borrow a portion of a previously recorded song in the making of a new record. Classic examples (I’m sure that you preachers who are also hip-hop aficionados will scoff at my use of such obvious illustrations) are the use of Chic’s classic Good Times in the record that is generally regarded as the first hip-hop record, Rapper’s Delight by the Sugar Hill Gang (1979) and M. C. Hammer’s sampling of Rick James’ Super Freak in Can’t Touch This (1990).

A debate once raged about whether such sampling was appropriate but it seems to be an accepted practice now. It’s just as well since, musically speaking, there is not much new under the sun; pretty much any blues or rock lick that any guitarist will play tonight has likely been played many times before and been passed down from generation to generation of guitarists.

Preachers engage in sampling, too—and we should.

We should acknowledge those thinkers and preachers and writers whose words help to shape and guide us—whose words strike us as being especially true—and we should allow their words to help to shape and guide our words as we try to tell the truth. Frederick Buechner, Barbara Brown Taylor and Eugene Peterson play that role in my preaching.

It goes without saying, I hope, that when we quote our models we should say so, but sometimes our sampling will be more a matter of viewpoint or tone or phrasing.

Still, all preachers have to find their own voice; we need, however, to avoid the prideful pitfall of believing too much in our own originality; we are, after all, the heirs of a great tradition.

When it comes to our use of the Bible, however, sampling won’t do…

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Preaching as Writing and Speaking

My mentor, the late and much lamented Dr. Howard Giddens, liked to say “The Holy Spirit can speak to the preacher in the study as well as in the pulpit.”

I have taken that observation to heart in my preaching career; I work on the text and the text works on me and as the text and I fight it out I truly believe that the Holy Spirit is right in there with us, sometimes refereeing and sometimes inciting.

99% of the time I end up sometime before Sunday with a sermon manuscript that contains words that I, in concert with the text and with the Holy Spirit, have labored and even agonized over in my desire to get them as right as I can and, if I do say so myself, what I produce is often a pretty good read.

I don’t know that it’s always such a good preach.

I don’t preach the manuscript, by which I mean that I don’t read it to the congregation. Oh, there will be places in the sermon where I stick real close to what I have written because there is something that I want to get just right or to be careful about how I say it, but I will, in the heat of the moment and, I hope, under the influence of the Spirit, say things that I didn’t write and that I didn’t intend to say.

It’s interesting to me how often the things I didn’t write but did speak are the things that people remember and the things to which they offer response.

Dr. Giddens was right: the Spirit speaks just as surely in the study as in the pulpit.

The opposite is also true.

And in both places the Spirit keeps things interesting—and dangerous…

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Preacher's Authority

They went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes (Mark 1:21-22).

The difference between the teaching of Jesus and that of the scribes did not have to do with a difference in the possession of authority—it was not that Jesus had some while the scribes had none—but rather with a difference in the nature of the authority: the authority of the scribes was a derived authority while that of Jesus was a direct authority.

Specifically, the authority of the scribes was derived from the authority of the text of the Scripture to which they were devoted while the authority of Jesus was based on his fidelity to his direct relationship with the Father.

There are implications here for preachers who are modern-day scribes (in the best sense of the term) and who risk being modern-day scribes (in the worst sense of the term).

We preachers base our preaching on the biblical text; that is as it should be, since God has in God’s grace given us our Bibles as the objective standard on which to base and by which to test our words.

Still, does not real authority in preaching come from our direct relationship with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit? Must not the core of our preaching come out of that relationship for our preaching to be truly authoritative?

After all, is not the goal of our preaching to help people find and to grow in their own personal relationship with God?

And if we are not careful, do we not run the risk of communicating that fidelity to propositions is more important than fidelity to a Person?

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Divine and the Human in the Text and in the Word

In the course of reviewing the book The Social Life of Scriptures, edited by James S. Bielo, Mark Noll says,

Christian believers of every sort have almost always spoken of the Bible as divine revelation in human form. The best classical teaching on Scripture has insisted that the divinity, the humanity, and the inseparable intertwining of divinity and humanity are crucial for understanding and appropriating Scripture [Books & Culture (September/October 2010), p. 12].

When we are dealing with Scripture, we are dealing with “the inseparable intertwining of divinity and humanity.” Is there a difference, though, in the “inseparable intertwining of divinity and humanity” that is present in the Bible and that which is present in Jesus Christ?

Unless we preachers keep our constant attention on the twin facts that the Bible is divinely inspired and humanly produced, we will lose the appropriate sense of its power and its pertinence. The Bible is both a divine Word and a human word, which makes it more real than any other written word.

Jesus, though, is the Word made flesh. Jesus is the ultimate merging of the human and the divine. It strikes me as idolatrous to raise the Bible to that same level in our thinking. After all, Scripture points to Jesus and Jesus completes Scripture.

I sometimes ponder the implication of the fact that God inspired (literally, “breathed”) the Scriptures; it sounds much like God breathing into the first man, which gave him life, but which did not make him God.

In Jesus, on the other hand, “the Word was God.”

God was in Christ; God breathed the Scriptures.

The difference seems to me important. After all, is not our preaching of the written word only effective if and as it points to and is enlivened by the living Word?

Monday, January 3, 2011

More Junk Doesn’t Make It More Better

Here in the middle of the 52nd year of my life I am trying hard to simplify it; I’m trying very hard to decide what things are really important to me and to do those things and to let everything else go.

As a part of that project I am also trying to simplify my sermons.

Among the third-hand critiques of my sermons (only one person ever said it to my face and that one person did it in writing—but she did sign her name) that I have heard over the years is the observation (or accusation) that they can sometimes or often be too cerebral; it has been said to me by a cacophony of voices (at least three over my almost forty year career) that “Mike is a great teacher but he’s not a great preacher.”

For my part, I never claimed or even aspired to be great at teaching or preaching.

For what it’s worth, though, I do think that good preaching has a teaching element to it; proclamation includes instruction.

Still…I agree that at times my sermons get a little too complicated; I have too much “on the one hand, on the other hand” in them and I try sometimes to cover way too much territory…say, the entire biblical witness…in one sermon.

I have concluded that the best sermons have one point that is simple enough to be understood, that is discussed in enough depth to have integrity, and that is illustrated with one story that can be remembered.

As John Fogerty said about Creedence Clearwater Revival’s 1969 album Green River, “All this overproduction is funny to me. It doesn’t make it mo’ betta when you add more junk.”

I want to leave out the junk…