Monday, January 16, 2012

Ersatz Sermons

While reading a book produced in England about the history of rock & roll music, I kept coming across the phrase “ersatz albums,” as in “several ersatz albums followed their well-received debut.”

Given that the word was ubiquitous in the book I finally decided that I should look it up—kind of like the ubiquitousness of the word “ubiquitous”—it was everywhere, after all—forced me to finally look “ubiquitous” up one day.

My handy-dandy on-line Merriam-Webster dictionary informed me that “ersatz” is an adjective meaning “being a usually artificial and inferior substitute or imitation.” So, for example, chicory coffee is ersatz coffee or a suburban American house might be an ersatz Spanish villa or lots of national politicians are ersatz Reagans or Kennedys.

It occurred to me that we preachers are subject to the temptation to preach ersatz sermons. Our sermons may be ersatz in two main ways.

First, our sermons may be ersatz because we try to copy someone else’s style; our efforts, not being natural to us, are naturally artificial and inferior.

We all have role models, of course; I can detect bits and pieces of my hometown pastor Preacher Bill Coleman, my first pastor “boss” Rev. William Key, and my mentor Dr. Howard Giddens in my preaching style, not to mention bits and pieces of other preachers whose sermons I’ve heard or read. But if we try to copy someone else’s style our preaching will not be genuine; it will not grow out of our realization of and development of the unique personality that God in God’s grace has formed in us, the unique gifts with which God has graced us, and the unique experiences into which God has led us.

Second, our sermons may be ersatz because we try to recreate a particular sermon or style that once worked well for us but may no longer work so well.

Perhaps, for example, we preached a sermon early in our career that brought down the house and we’ve been trying ever since to recreate that glory without considering the fact that we cannot recreate the circumstances of that preaching moment no matter how hard we try.

Or perhaps, for another example, we may have fallen in love with a particular style somewhere along the line and have slavishly followed it ever since with no recognition that it has become predictable and ineffective. I remember a preacher whose claim to fame was that all of his sermons were alliterative; that approach seemed to me to be stale, stilted, and stupefying.

My seminary preaching professor taught us that the only bad preaching style was the one you used all the time. Inspired, I turned in a very creative approach to our first sermon, an effort to which his Ph.D. candidate grader assigned a C+ because I did not follow the grader’s expected and predictable format; I adapted, of course, and followed the grader’s expected and predictable format for the rest of my assignments, thus salvaging an A- in the course—but I still never forgot the professor’s observation.

So how can we avoid ersatz sermons—sermons that are inferior efforts to duplicate someone else’s sermons or even our own earlier “successful” sermons or preaching styles?

Here are a few suggestions.

First, take chances and try different styles. If you’re a three points and a poem preacher, study Jesus’ parables and preach some sermons that tell one story and make one point. If you’re a narrative preacher, try a deductive approach at proclaiming one of the great theological truths of the Bible. If you don’t believe in talking about yourself in a sermon, try talking about yourself in a sermon—just be sure to talk about Jesus more.

Second, go back to some of your old sermons and re-preach them. You might find them worth a rerun but you also might find yourself shocked into trying something new and different.

Third, read, read, and read some more and watch, watch, and watch some more and listen, listen, and listen some more. Never stop gaining new knowledge through reading books and journals and, yes, even blogs, and through watching quality movies and television programs (yes, they do exist) and through listening to familiar and unfamiliar styles of music. Besides, sometimes a story or poem or essay or film or television program or song can lead to interesting developments in our homiletical style.

Fourth, treat every sermon as an adventure. Go into the biblical text and into the encounter with God you will have there with the spirit of an intrepid explorer going into uncharted territory; expect to find a new and shocking thing around the next bend. Then preach that new and shocking thing.

Fifth, maintain a close walk with God. Pray. Read books on spirituality. Practice the great Christian disciplines that have stood the test of time. As we grow in our relationship with God we will grow in our preaching; as we become more authentically and genuinely ourselves we will become more authentic and genuine in our preaching.

Those who hear our preaching will be edified as ersatz sermons become less ubiquitous.

You can look it up…