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How to Preach Badly, Part One: Good Preaching

If what follows in this three-part series reads like a yet another knockoff of The Screwtape Letters, you’ve discovered my inspiration. Instead of speaking for the devil, however, I am speaking for myself, a preacher of many bad sermons. Most of the worst of these were those that, at the time of delivery, I thought my best — the most clever, ambitious, or (I could’ve sworn!) profound.

Though I have yet to be humbled, I have been frequently embarrassed, most recently as I watched a livestream recording of a sermon I gave some time ago, which I fondly remembered as especially inspired. It was certainly spirited. I had hardly recovered from the shock of hearing my voice (“I sound like that?”) when the spectacle of what I do with my hands while I talk — constantly, emphatically pointing this way and that, like James Cagney shooting his way out of a foiled bank robbery and, occasionally, in the throes of delivering a well-turned phrase, flapping my elbows like a flightless bird in a state of panic — forced me to squeeze my eyes shut.

Sitting through the remainder with my ears open, however, the worst part of the harrowing experience fully hypostatized: even more noisome than the sound of my voice was the torrent of utterly misspent words, searching heaven and earth for a subject. It was not an especially long sermon, but it seemed to drag on forever. Its mistakes, invisible to the composer, were painfully obvious to the listener: I was preaching not one sermon but several; I was needlessly trying to weave three different lections together; I was straining for profundity; and drowning in my own rhetoric, I had completely lost sight of the gospel I had originally set out to exposit.

The root of most of that was that I had originally set out to impress. Justly, listening to myself show off did terrible injury to my vanity. Sadly, my vanity survived the injury. It has survived to write this essay.

Expositing a text: that, I believe, is where good preaching begins. A good sermon may do any number of other things — teach, exhort, encourage, comfort, convict and all the other things we can lop under the general heading of “edify” — but a preacher’s first responsibility is to the Scriptures. That’s the only possible excuse I can imagine for allowing anyone to interrupt the work of the people, to silence their songs of praise and thanksgiving and to presume to say anything more than the public reading of the Word of God has already said: that the preacher can possibly help the congregation hear what the Scriptures are saying.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that a good sermon must be an expository sermon, as traditionally understood. The autopsical model — dissecting a passage, taking it apart verse by verse or word by word — is quite as likely to obscure the text as any other approach because, quite apart from the prospect of losing sight of the forest for the trees, an expository preacher is every bit as liable to meandering digression and cockamamie interpretation as anyone else.

Moreover, because preaching is, among several other things, a pastoral act, a good pastor may on any given Sunday judge that what his or her people most need to hear is not what the appointed lections are saying. A global crisis, a local crisis, a signal event in the life of the parish, or even a change in liturgical season may demand an ad hoc word of wisdom, comfort, or instruction. Rather than torture the lessons into timbering a helpful message like that, we do better to follow the Baptists: say our piece, cite random proof texts as necessary.

All of this is to say that I believe that we should allow exceptions to the rule, but as a rule, the sermon should be ruled by the Scriptures. If that sounds like a painfully narrow constriction, then either we’re selling the Scriptures short or we’ve been exposed to too few models of good exposition. Hearkening back to the good old days when preachers commonly delivered two-hour lectures and Protestants died in droves of boredom, I once heard an ardently expository preacher deliver a nine-point sermon; even more astonishingly, he introduced the sermon by announcing that it would include nine points. At that point, of course, five seconds into the treatise, every eye in the house promptly glazed over.

Good exposition, however, can be far more interesting, to say nothing of edifying, than listening to a preacher elaborate yet another platitude into three alliterative points, reduce yet another parable to three alliterative points, or improvise yet another knockoff of The Screwtape Letters. Good exposition is less about word studies than it is about venturing into a foreign country, which turns out to be our own. Granting all the significant differences between the ancient world and ours — responsibly observing the significant differences between Isaiah’s world and John the Baptist’s —  the honest exploration of the Bible can, as Flannery O’Connor once said good literature does, make the familiar unfamiliar, and the unfamiliar familiar. What first strikes us as primitive, incredible, or absurd in the Bible often, upon examination, turns out to be perfectly true to our experience; while what has always seemed self-evidently true to us, when illuminated by the biblical witness, is sometimes seen to be absurd.

When they’re not simply used to prove what we were going to say anyway, the Scriptures prove themselves more bracing, startlingly earthy, and delightfully paradoxical than we ever suspected. Faithful and doubtful, hopeful and despairing, offended and offending, loving and hating, we can find ourselves in almost every story, every psalm, and even in most of the most didactic passages in the epistles — sometimes at our best, sometimes at our worst, usually in all our vexing ambiguity. The Bible was certainly written to be read with faith, but its perspicacity becomes evident to anyone who will read it with the sympathy any good reader brings to a poem, for like its Author, it sympathizes with us.

This is a secret too well-kept from our people, most of whom have been taught either to disdain the Bible or to devoutly mine it for quotes, serviceable for argument or (at our best) private meditation. But our general ignorance of its great narratives and their remarkably complex stories serves to reduce our faith, just as we habitually reduce parables, to a set of wooden propositions, a screed of moral imperatives, or a puddle of warm sentiments. And I don’t believe that the usual suspect, bad theology, is the culprit here. Some of our best theologians are our worst preachers, not just because their sermons usually turn out to be essays, better read than heard, but because their sermons essay their theology instead of exploring texts.

In my experience, that’s where most of the meandering digressions of expositional preachers go: too quickly to interpretation, which for many of them is apparently a foregone conclusion. I strongly suspect that that’s why so many expository sermons are so terribly boring: because the preacher is bored, because he or she knew from the outset what the passage would say, because he or she knew from the outset what it must say. But one of the beauties of the Bible is one of its most frustrating features: it just will not funnel anyone’s theological system. This is not to deny the excellent claims of Reformed theology, or sacramental theology, or liberation theology, or creedal orthodoxy: I believe they’re all in there. But the Bible is not a donkey that dutifully bears the freight with which we set out to saddle it. The Bible is a wild ass that refuses bit or bridle.

That’s not to deny its coherency. I believe that Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Moses, and the prophets preach one gospel, and that all the biblical writers sing in harmony. But to say that they sing in harmony is to admit that they don’t always sing in unison. That’s a part of what makes the Book so interesting: Moses doesn’t set out to say what Job says, Matthew doesn’t set out to say what Paul says, and Paul doesn’t set out to say to the Romans exactly what he said to the Galatians.

There’s an old joke that every preacher has but one sermon. What makes it a joke is that it’s a gross exaggeration; what makes it funny is that, St. Paul notwithstanding, it’s true. We each have theological preoccupations and a small collection of spiritual insights, which inevitably, usually without our noticing, find their way into each of our sermons, regardless of its stated subject. That’s what makes even our most creative sermons fairly predictable to our congregations.

There are far worse crimes than boring our people to death, and few worse mistakes than setting out to entertain them. Nevertheless, the best way to avoid boring our people is to avoid boring ourselves, and the best way to do that is to allow the Scriptures to write our sermons. Of all the literature on earth, none is better able to surprise a careful reader, challenge our settled opinions, and explode our pat answers than the library of the Bible.

What follows is a guide to bad preaching because that’s what I know best, and because models of good preaching are too many to number even in an essay as long as this. Some shows a wonderful way with words, some an uncommon creativity, some an uncommon erudition, some a sparkling sense of humor, and some no fireworks at all. In fact, most of the best pastors I know have no flair for public speaking whatsoever. Their gift, which is the supreme gift, is that they simply love their people.

The hard truth, which is hard for a dogmatist like me to admit, is that some of our most anointed preachers are actually some of our worst. They don’t exposit the Scriptures because they don’t know how. All they are able to do is to stand before their people week after week and talk about the gospel as they know it, paraphrasing it as best they can, no doubt frequently resorting to banal anecdotes, shopworn clichés and mind-numbing redundancies. But what they are doing week after week is setting before their people the life-altering example of someone who loves the Lord and is happy to say so.

I have nothing to teach a bad preacher like that. What I can do, with my superior training and vast experience in irresponsible preaching, is offer some bad counsel to impressionable young souls as vain as I: how to make like James Cagney and shoot your way out of a robbery in which you actually succeed in fleecing the flock.

Tomorrow: three easy steps to bad preaching (with more to follow).

The Rev. Steve Schlossberg is rector of St. Matthew’s Church, Richmond, Virginia.


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