Monday, 24 August 2009

The Disappearing Textual Sermon

One impression I have gained recently from hearing and reading the sermons of other preachers is that many sermons today are not textual. By this I mean they show little evidence of any wrestling with the text on the part of the preacher, and they certainly do not really engage the hearer with the Biblical text before making the transition to what it means today.

I find this disturbing, and I think if I were a layman I would possibly find it even more disturbing. If there is one plea that seems to be on the lips of laypeople today it is "Explain for us what the Bible means." Biblical literacy is at an all-time low, and one way that can be addressed is by engaging with the text in the sermon, modelling for people how to interpret holy writ properly.

Not that I would hold myself up as a model of an expository preacher. Indeed, I am only too conscious of my own shortcomings in this area and also of the limitations placed upon preachers today, particularly in multi-point rural parishes where a 10-15minute "slot" in the liturgy is all one can allow for the sermon in order to get to the next service in time. But, no matter how inadequate my efforts in this area, I always try to open up the text in a sermon, and I never cease to be amazed by how much homiletic material an in-depth study of the text brings out.

Yet this approach seems to be out of favour today if what I hear and read is anything to go by. Far more common than the textual sermon are thematic, topical and what I call "pan-liturgical" or "pan-sacramental" sermons, where the text seems to serve merely as a jumping off point for the preacher to wax eloquent on a subject close to his heart.

Not that there is anything absolutely wrong, I hasten to add, with topical or thematic sermons. I have preached them myself in the past and will no doubt do so again. There is also nothing wrong with using the liturgy, especially our Lutheran liturgy with its rich Biblical content, to illustrate a point, or even going deeper than that and showing God's people how the liturgy enacts or effects in their lives today what is in the text (e.g. Absolution) through God's performative Word. Neither is there anything wrong with a doctrinal sermon on Baptism or the Lord's Supper - we need these too. But I have seen violence done to texts in order to make them "sacramental", and I have heard preaching which seems to have as its only purpose the display of the preacher's knowledge of arcane liturgical matters which are really of little interest to a layperson. And if topical and thematic sermons are devoid of organic connection to definite Biblical texts, they are apt to become like untethered balloons, which merely float about without purpose and never touch down on the real ground of peoples' lives.

There are, no doubt, reasons for the type of sermon that is so popular today. Setting aside theological issues for the moment, let's consider a purely practical issue. Pastors say they have precious little time available for extended study of either the Bible or theological texts that will add meat to the bones of their doctrinal understanding, and under such circumstances it is much easier to write a topical sermon first and find Biblical passages to fit it later, or to preach basically the same sermon on the Lord's Supper whatever the Gospel text. I'm all for the "Sir, we would see Jesus" approach to the Biblical text, and the sacrament is a direct route to Jesus (or rather, his direct route to us); but can every Gospel text be about the Lord's Supper?.

The proper response to this claim is "Can we steward our time differently?" If the primary responsibility of the Minister of the Word (in German Lutheran parlance the Predigtamt or Preaching Office), which is precisely to minister the Word to God's people, is taking second or third place to other matters, is it not time to look again at and re-prioritise the demands on our time? We pastors need to guard our time of study of God's Word from the encroachments of other, ostensibly more urgent matters, lest we find that we become empty vessels which make a lot of noise but never say anything of great import.

Perhaps the old pastoral guide, admittedly from a quieter era, of "the morning for study, the afternoon for visiting, and the evening for the family" needs reviving?

I write these words as much for myself as for others.


hn160 said...

If you want to see poor excuse for sermons, visit my former ELCA church at, then visit my LC-MS church at and listen to a podcast sermon. Tell me which one is preaching Christ Crucified.

M. A. Henderson said...

Ah yes, Henry, I think you are talking about another beast entirely, namely what I would call the "pseudo-Christian sermon", especially likely to be heard from liberal Anglican, Lutheran and Presbyterian pulpits.
The preacher uses just enough Christian language to make the congregation think he believes, but, if you were to ask him plainly, he doesn't. What he is preaching is another religion entirely.
I recommend J. Gresham Machen's 'Christianity and Liberalism', published in the late 1920s but still available as an inexpensive paperback, as the best analysis of this "pulpit crime".