I had an odd experience recently. I made a purposefully vague comment about a recent sermon being better than the week before. Two people took exception to that. I thought that was odd, because it was, after all merely an opinion. Our tastes, even in sermons, are rarely alike with more than a very few individuals. And if the speaker even bothered to notice the comment, “better” is a positive word, right? Of course, the thread got more detailed, but even then, doesn’t the average preacher want both positive and negative feedback? I suspect there must be something more to it all, but I can only guess at the reasons for them being upset.
It gave me something to think and pray about for at least the rest of the day. It was on my mind as I fell asleep, something of a mystery, since God hasn’t yet brought any clarity to the subject. I wondered how many people just love a given sermon, how many hate it, and how many fall into the middle spectrum, or even don’t care. You know it’s bound to be a mix of opinions on any given Sunday, no matter that most people congratulate the pastor.
When I woke up this morning, it was still on my mind, but I was thinking about all the sermons I’ve heard through the years and my reactions to them. I started going to more than just Sunday school when I was 8 or 9, so I guess I’ve heard well over two thousand sermons, more if you count things I’ve read in a similar vein. When I was young, the church was pretty liberal. One of the old timers in the church told me that the first pastor I could remember was so liberal, that he didn’t last long here. I do remember that the sermons always seemed to start with some funny anecdote, to get people’s attention. They would give a nod to whatever passage was the focus, and I do recall the pastors trying very hard to let us know that science was okay and not in any way against the bible. There was usually some illustration of a good Christian person, usually Albert Schweitzer or Frank Laubach, whom we should emulate.
Later, I got seriously involved in studying the bible for myself. I enjoyed expository sermons that really took the bible apart and went into the contexts of things. I often wished for something more than I was getting at my home church and eventually went to a more evangelical one. There they were going through the bible book by book, but every once in a while they had what I call a “Come to Jesus” sermon. At first this was refreshing, because it was new. But after a while, and with repetition, it got irritating. I felt like the whole thing was aimed at someone else, who hadn’t already dedicated their life to Jesus. There seemed to be nothing for those of us looking for strength and encouragement in our already established faith.
Eventually I ended up back in our home church. The sermons had changed a bit, or maybe it was just a new minister with a different style. Some were great, most were good, but occasionally people would be talking about one as the best they had heard in years and it simply hadn’t hit me that way. Like I say, we are all different. We had a few people come through here, who seemed to have no faith at all. They would preach on a given passage, but at best the sermon seemed to be about self-improvement, or maybe trying to fix the world. I remember rolling my eyes at the way one preacher tap danced around verses referring to spiritual warfare, making it something about standing up to the military-industrial complex, or human governments. Evidently they did not believe in a spiritual world at all.
Over the years, I’ve heard some world class sermons and some duds. I’ve heard some that excited me and some that calmed me and even some that bored me. I’ve heard sermons that made me angry and others that made me repentant. Some even brought me to tears. But I neither expect nor demand that a sermon bring some emotional response. In fact, most of the time, I won’t even comment on an individual sermon, though if they begin to seem to be dumbed down as a matter of course, you will definitely hear from me. The former GATE kid and Phi Beta Kappa grad in me just won’t stand for that. I would think that each pastor’s goal would be to preach, on a given Sunday, what his or her congregation needs to hear from God. If they begin to try to “fix” their congregation, instead of fixing their eyes on Jesus, then that pastor has gone off track.