A Good Word

On sabbatical, i had the opportunity to go to worship in other places. Like, just GO to church! If you have ever led worship and/or preached on a regular basis, you know that getting to experience worship on the other end, and not have to create or facilitate it in some way, is a gift. Several weeks of this made me realize how much i was missing, being always on the other side of the pulpit–and how i could be a much better preacher if i took time, more often, to hear what other folks are doing with the gospel.

What makes a good message? Here is my list. Please note, I am not saying that I deliver every one of these elements consistently. But, knowing what i like to hear, this is where i set the bar for myself. This is what people hunger for–and what they deserve to hear–when they take the time to visit our churches:

A message that:

1-Assumes the intelligence of the audience.  Many churches treat every person in the pew as if they are hearing about Jesus for the very first time. There is something to be said for keeping those brand new ears in mind when you preach. But just because someone has maybe never heard the text you are reading, does not mean they are 5 years old. I really hate to be handed a ‘fill in the blank’ card that goes along with the sermon, and invites the listener to write in word-for-word quotes from the preacher. A truly good message invites folks to hear what we mean–and what it means for them– and not just repeat back what we are saying.

2-Shares personal faith, but does not overshare.A good preacher can give a glimpse of his/her own faith journey, share an experience of the holy or a time of personal trial –without making the message about oneself. It is important for folks to know that ministers struggle, too. That we doubt, that we are imperfect, and we have fractured relationships. But nobody wants to come to worship and experience  ‘emotional bleeding’ from the pulpit. People also want to hear that we have mountaintop moments–face to face run-ins with God that make it all worthwhile, periods of transformation that seem other-worldly…But you know, they don’t want to hear us go on and on about it. There’s a point at which it becomes bragging.

And maybe it should go without saying…but the good sermon is about scripture. And not in a literal, ‘i’m going to pick apart every word of this until you know what it SAYS’ kind of way, but in a way that invites hearers to internalize the scripture, and see it reflected in their own lives. The temptation to illustrate scripture with more scripture ought to be avoided… As should the temptation to always write ourselves into the biblical story. So: no bleeding, no bragging, and no pretending we are Jesus.

3-Contains humor, but not cheese. It’s all about timing, really. And usually, telling an outright joke does not get you very far. The joke, as Fred Craddock says (oh, NOW you’re listening) is its own thing. It is a self-contained unit, with a beginning and an end. Once you’ve told it, there isn’t much you can add. 94% of the time, this turns out to be true. What’s funny in a sermon is, more often, a quick moment of insight. Extreme truth-telling that shines a light on the shared human experience in such a way that people cannot help but laugh at the honesty of it.

To put it simply–if you are scanning the internet for a joke that relates to your message, (guilty) then you are trying too hard. If you have to explain the connection, you are trying too hard. If that one old church lady–you know, the one who loves you no matter what, has told you what songs to sing at her funeral, brings you cookies when you’re sick and thinks you are all around wonderful–is the only one laughing, you’ve done tried too hard. It is not a stand-up routine, anyway, it is the gospel. It is only funny if it’s true. Which leads me to the next point–a great sermon

4–does not try too hard.The best sermons are not written out word for word. Every one of us has to learn this the hard way because, dang it, Saturday just sucks if you can’t feel that your sermon is typed up, printed out in multiple, and DONE. But the hard and simple truth is–the sermon that’s been ‘finished’ is already done, before the Holy Spirit ever shows up on Sunday.

I struggle, myself, to find the line here–what is ‘enough’ preparation to mean that i’m ready for Sunday, but have still left room for something outside myself to contribute? When you’ve figured that one out, preacher friends, let me know. I think it will be my lifelong struggle… But hey, I am all for lifelong struggle, because a good message also

5-Leaves a question.Remember back on number 1 where – assume some intelligence among those who hear? Well, we can also assume that folks have some powers of insight, deduction, and reflection. I know that many conservative churches set out to ‘answer’ all things, to prescribe solutions, and to teach text book responses to life’s most difficult questions. But to me, over-explaining is one of the most harmful things we can do to a person’s faith. It leaves people dry when they are in actual pain, and the textbook answers dissolve into just words. The ‘easy-answer’ approach is also why we are bleeding young people by the millions; it is also why many churches are still afraid to let women lead, still afraid to let go the committee structures that are killing them slowly, and still categorizing people’s lives as ok/not ok. The compulsive need to answer/fix/do/know what to expect is getting us down, big time.

A question–or simply an unresolved connection–sends folks out the door in a state of wonder, feeling empowered and–most importantly–part of the story. For what it’s worth, this is what i love about Children’s Worship and Wonder. The stories do not resolve into ‘and the moral is…” Rather, they invite children to engage the story at a creative, tactile level. Given this kind of space, the story becomes a part of their life and being in the way that a black and white ‘lesson’ never could.

The other day, my 3-year-old told me to be quiet because “somebody might be talking to God.” Sometimes, us preachers would do well to remember that in grown-up worship as well. You can only say so much. At some point–be quiet, and let people talk to God for their own selves.

6–A good message also contains simple, powerful imagery.The goal should be that we not just preach ABOUT Jesus, but also that we preach like him.Jesus used imagery that engaged people at a fundamental level. Simple, familiar, every day and practical things, held up as signs of God with us. Seeds. Yeast. Banquets. Currency. Work in the fields, work in the home. God is everywhere, if we are looking. What are we holding up these days as such simple signs of grace and abundance? What speaks to people at such a fundamental level? Often, food, water, family and vocation will still work for us, if we give them the space to do so.

7-Timely. Somebody (Some say Bart, some say Bruggemann, some say it was their own seminary professor…) once said that you should preach with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. But I’d say these days, we need to go a bit farther. Like, the Bible in one hand, the newspaper in the other–and a newsfeed on your computer in the background, and the radio tuned to NPR, and twitter alerts coming on your phone. Because, thing is, stuff happens quickly now. It isn’t just about knowing that there’s a recession, or knowing that the Olympics are going on, or that it’s an election year (Lord help us) or that people are tired and stressed at Christmas time. The essence of being ‘timely’ has utterly changed, now that news can travel to us at lightning speed. Things happen in the world, even if it is Saturday night. Even if it is Sunday morning.

Now, if you are a preacher, your blood pressure just went up a little bit at the thought of scrapping your notes on Sunday morning (i have stress dreams about this, all the time) because some local or global event just rendered your entire message utterly irrelevant. Yesterday’s news. But that is just what good preachers are ready to do–scrap the whole thing if the newsfeed takes the story elsewhere. If there’s a shooting in the community; if a beloved local restaurant burns down; if a whole portion of the country or world is swallowed by flood, or shaken by earthquake–then whatever we thought was important on Saturday, just got trumped by the newsfeed. Game on.

And really, it can go the other way, too. The transforming factor can be great joy or abundance.  If the local high school football team won the state championship the night before–there’s your sermon. If it is Easter and, for the first time in years, you don’t have enough space for all the people–that is the message. If it is Christmas, and your folks managed to feed and clothe 50 needy families during the season–thanks be to God, THAT is your incarnation story. Hold up that good book, and read some good stuff from it, and then say, ‘you know? For today, I think we get it. That God is in our midst–wholly and eternally; in grief or in joy; in our need and in our overflow of goodness; in everything we’ve done right, and in every place that we tried and failed; from our doorsteps to the ends of the earth, there is good news not just in these pages, but in our hearts, in our lives, and in our world.” And then you bless it and go home.

Because even on our best days, we are not really creating the message, nor can we add much to its goodness. The best we can hope for is to crack open its truth, its power, and its grace just a little bit wider, so that it might come to life as a blessed invitation to hear, and to follow.

What makes a sermon meaningful and memorable for you?

My favorite pulpit–Vespers at Camp Wakon’ Da Ho. The space speaks for itself.

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About Erin Wathen

Rev. Erin Wathen is the Senior Pastor of Saint Andrew Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Olathe, KS (www.sacchome.org). She's a Kentucky native, a long-time desert dweller, and she writes about the sacred thread that runs through pretty much everything. For more info, click the 'about' tab above...

  • Linda Jones

    I think that just about covers it! Well done.


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