We recently completed a preaching class for laity here at Calvary. One of the assignments for each participant was to write an essay addressing the question, “What is good preaching?” Without exception, all the essays were well thought-out and quite insightful–reading them made me wonder what I possibly had to teach participants! From time to time I will be posting some of these essays, as I think you will find them thought-provoking as well. Special thanks to Susan Sevier for permission to print her essay here:
I must confess that I’m not really a big fan of preaching as a literary genre. I am more of a nonfiction reader, personally. I’m sure that in the course of my too-many-degreed life, I’ve read countless famous sermons, even more countless excerpts from important sermons. And I know for a fact in a good 40 years as a church lady, I have mostly likely heard 1500 or more sermons from the pulpit (yes, I did deduct for the years in which I took a sabbatical from my church-going ways).
And, I have been fortunate. Many of these sermons have moved me, made me think, caused me to question, given me comfort, and some, particularly since I have come to Calvary, have allowed me to cry and truly experience for at least a moment my condition as a member of the human race.
This brings me to my first point about what, for me, makes an excellent sermon. My first question is: do I hear in the words of the person preaching, their humanity? Do I hear their struggle with life, with faith, with the experiencing the Divine in their life? At this point in my life, the only thing that I know with any certainty is, that we all struggle with life, with faith, with experiencing the Divine…but I am only interested in the thoughts of someone who is humbled enough by that uncertainty to admit it. I have no use for someone who has all the answers, because I know that it just is not true.
My second question is (if I am in my observer mode, not my experiential mode): do the words of the speaker include me or push me away? This is a continuation actually, of the first question, but I think it would be possible to accomplish the goal of displaying your humanity in your sermon and still give the impression that it is only the speaker’s experience or that somehow the speaker’s experience is “special”. A good sermon opens a door and invites the listener in; I need to feel that it is possible for me to be part of the story unfolding before me, if I will just walk through the door.
My third question is: as I listen, am I experiencing the act of creation along with the speaker? I certainly don’t mean that I only enjoy sermons delivered without notes. By creation I mean a sense of excitement, a sense of discovery, a sense that what the speaker is sharing with me bears the mark of new insight – that somewhere along the way the writer experienced an “aha” moment that they now share with the listeners. One of the reasons we exist and learn in community is because each of us is an individual expression of divinity – it’s the beauty of life on the human plane – our common divinity is filtered through our individual human expression, and therefore when we bring the message to the world it comes as if through a faceted jewel – and you never know which facet of light will fall on which soul and bear fruit. A sermon writer has to be able to turn the jewel, and view the message from its many facets, and present as many facets as possible to reach as many different people as possible. That requires the ability to examine the text from a wide variety of perspectives, and frankly, that requires both an act of creation and an act of empathy, the ability to question from the perspective of the Other.
My fourth question, and this may seem a silly one, but here it is: does the speaker really understand what they are talking about? I realize that if we really understood scripture, there might not be a need for sermons, but by “understanding” I actually mean, have they gotten the intellectual work out of the way? I think you will never get to the “aha” moment if you don’t get the intellectual work out of the way — the historical and cultural must be processed and out of the way; yes, these pieces of information can fuel a revelation, but it is not interesting to listen to these things delivered as the revelation itself. I can read a history book myself, and I can read the notes in my study Bible.
In closing, what is most interesting to me after asking myself the question “What is Good Preaching”, it is fascinating to me that my evaluative guidelines are similar to those I would give if you ask me the question “What is a good singing?” There are all the technical responses: well-prepared, good vocal technique, good diction and language skills, accuracy of delivery. But it is the less tangible qualities that make for a great performance: does the performer display a sense of understanding of the music, are the inviting me as the audience member into the process, am I witnessing an act of creation before me (because in live performance music only lives for an instant).
In both singing and preaching, for me, the most important evaluation is: does the conversation continue once the sermon (performance) is over – did it inspire, stir up questions, cause me to want to seek and question more, to listen more, to read more, to change, to grow, to reach out, to stretch. Because it is in the quest that I as a listener feel alive and included. Now that’s a sermon that works.