Are sermons asked to do too much?

A sermon on a Sunday is supposed to open up the readings to the people and show how the teaching in the readings should be put into practice today, but in many parts of Christianity it is also supposed to highlight a Christian perspective/response to current events in the church or in society at large (and in non-liturgical churches the readings, or a short additional reading within the sermon, may be chosen to underline the sermon message). It is often hard to tie lectionary readings to current events, and many people who favor homilies over sermons argue that one should not try to work current events into readings that have nothing to do with them. With lectionaries it is also often difficult to preach on all two or three readings at once, because they are not always thematically linked.

I know this may try congregants' attention spans and run contrary to liturgical tradition, but I think there should be multiple short sermons/homilies in a service preached by multiple people. There should be short homilies for each reading, although two readings can get one homily if they are strongly linked. There should be a current events sermon (I am often furious to go to church after some massacre has happened and not hear it addressed because "it isn't in the readings"). I have, though, also been to services where a lecture is on whatever the priest wants it to be and the lectionary readings are ignored, and that also annoys me. I think lectionary readings should be combined with a special reading chosen to address current events. And there maybe should be separate readings/homilies for current events in the church and current events outside the church. When a minister has a good, long, relevant, sermon (let's face it - for all but the most gifted of preachers this isn't often the case), the number of homilies/sermons can be cut down on a given Sunday. Most of the time, the preaching can be succinct and thematically coherent - and the variety of preaching may actually be good for people's attention spans.

If, realistically, there is only one person who can be expected to prepare even a good short homily/sermon on a given Sunday, maybe pastoral letters from bishops/senior pastors or priests/ministers that are good preachers that are sermons in themselves can be read at multiple churches - or, God forbid you might say, video sermons might be shown at multiple churches, as long as one in-person homily/sermon is delivered.

I actually come from a very, very catholic background, so my suggestions might seem ludicrous. Any of you who are actual clergy will probably think they are practically infeasible and simply ask soo much of preachers (and congregants). So have at it and tear my idea apart. Does anyone think at least a partial version of it might be a good idea?

Comments

  • I think you make some good points. I come from a different tradition which majors on preaching (although today people want 20 minutes rather than an hour) and which sits lightly to lectionaries. This means that we probably are able to more easily address current issues and have more time to go into them; having said that many sermons have much more to do with personal spirituality and ethics than "larger" issues.

    Having different people do different shorter homilies may be difficult to co-ordinate, however I have at times divided my sermon up into separate segments; I always have two or three short discrete talks at All-age services. Personally I'm not keen on reading out sermons or other material produced by others as they seem to lack the immediacy of God speaking to us. By the way - and this is a Marmite thing which some folk like and others don't - I quite liberally illustrate my sermons with projected pictures.

    I certainly agree that there is more than one way of skinning the sermonic cat and the aim must always be to communicate what one believes God might be saying.

  • I certainly agree that there is more than one way of skinning the sermonic cat and the aim must always be to communicate what one believes God might be saying.

    This. Preaching is about sharing God's word in the here and now, which means today's word as well as yesterday's.

    Yes, the sermon 'should' be all-singing, all-dancing, but I can try and try to write the best sermon ever, and then God comes along and gives me a new steer on it, often at the last minute so that I barely have time to read it through.

    If something drastic happens which must be addressed on the day, it can be added on at the end of the sermon, and of course in the prayers. Those listening will understand.

    Bible study groups can be used to teach more about the scriptures. If there were too many talks at the main Sunday service, I think it would deter more people from attending.
  • Problem is, in most churches only a tiny minority are prepared to go to Bible study groups. This places a greater burden of responsibility upon the sermon (and its preacher).
  • ZappaZappa Ecclesiantics Host
    In purely pedagogical terms the sermon is fairly useless - certainly the OP and comments above make that point well. The problem in a liturgical-lectionary based church is the shape and design of the liturgy. It is not pedagogical but a careful drama from gathering through renewal and offering to sending.

    Raptor's Eye is right, the pedagogy/teaching belongs in smaller group settings. The sermon therefore must wrestle with, yes, breaking open the word and breaking open if you like the times, inspiring and comforting and titillating within that liturgical journey. The deepest depths of Dis are reserved (I jest, just) for preachers who fail those joint tasks.

    But good points, and there may be occasional contexts when your OP suggested model provides a change ... but only, I suggest occasionally, in honourable and rare departure from liturgical format.
  • In my experience, each homilist or preacher has their pet topic or lesson, and manages to find it in every scripture text.
  • Baptist TrainfanBaptist Trainfan Shipmate
    edited November 2
    I don't disagree at all. However I'd want to add that the best of what, for the want of a better term, might be called "non-liturgical worship", also has a theme, structure and drama. However this will normally have the reading of Scripture and, especially, the sermon as its centre. Very often this will be followed (rather than preceded) by confession and intercession arising from the sermon's them. It's much more than a than the rightly maligned "hymn sandwich" with the music selected by idly flicking through the hymnbook at the last minute!

    Where things do get tricky is when the service is Eucharistic - bear in mind that in many churches of my tradition this may only occur once a month. Here the problem is a bit like the typical British living room where you're not quite sure if your attention should be focused on the fireplace or the TV set next to it: is the apex or climax of the service the sermon or the Communion? Very often one feels that one has "peaked" at the end of the sermon and that the Communion is "tacked on the end", with worshippers keeping an eye on the clock so that their Sunday dinner won't burn! I jest; but it's a real point.
  • I've long been of the view that in evangelical Anglican and non-conformist churches where sermons are valued but communion not as frequent as in other traditions, the sermon should be handled differently at a communion service. That would make communion feel less bolt-on. To have a 20 minute sermon and a communion in the same service is impractical. Why not have a short homily that week? If you're in a Baptist church there are three other Sunday services a month where the sermon can be substantial.
  • I am not quite sure what exactly people here mean by pedagogy, which they say should be left to Bible Study (which, in the churches I have gone to, is often nonexistent, by the way).

    I think that pedagogy as people mean it here does not include a. opening up Scripture, b. addressing general Christian spirituality and ethics (and social action) in light of the readings, or c. addressing current events in light of the readings.

    What then does pedagogy, as you refer to it here, mean in the context of a sermon? (And I am perfectly capable of looking up the dictionary definition of pedagogy.)
  • The problem is that pedagogy is left to the sermon, the whole liturgy is pedagogical. It should aim to teach use through practice what it means to worship in the Kingdom.
  • In general, my experience is that there are already several "talking spots" in services that can be used imaginatively in the way described in the OP. My practice is to use the childrens address to either present a warm-up to the sermon, or to bring out something from one of the readings that would be tangential to the main theme of the sermon.

    The notices often present a time to cover (usually local) current events, which can (of course) be followed up in the prayers - a few weeks back when giving the intimations I reported on the local paper which that week had reported one of the food banks having run out of food, an opportunity to a) thank those who regularly donate food, and b) pick up a theme running through a couple of recent sermons about the big difference small things can make (in this case when a food bank has no food even a small donation means at least one family has some food that week). I don't think the guest preacher that week minded me sermonising.

    I usually find a theme in the readings that works through the whole service, which I reflect in the prayers and hymns as well as the sermon and other addresses. I don't think it's necessary to preach on everything in the lectionary, for a start if you want to cover everything within one passage (let alone three or four) then even a one hour sermon wouldn't be enough time. It's more important to find the message for the congregation that week - I admit that more often than not I find that that's drawn from all the passages, but sometimes just one or two. If it's appropriate to give two messages then splitting the sermon into distinct sections is something we do occasionally, I've never felt the need to do that (unless you count my practice of using the childrens address to start the congregation thinking).
  • magnilomagnilo Shipmate
    In evangelical Anglican churches the sermon often pushes out other parts of the liturgy; liturgical confession, the creeds, catechism of children and even the Eucharistic prayer! I don’t think it’s helpful.
  • Though, from other perspectives it could be said that liturgical confession, the creeds, catechism of children and the Eucharistic prayer can push out the sermon, which many of us would also consider unhelpful!

    At least part of that list (catechism of children) is something I would consider inappropriate for an act of worship anyway. There is a need for catechism (of adults as well as children), but would think that the primary focus for that should be sometime other than during an act of worship - in Evangelical churches that would be through Bible Study groups, I also find the practice of some American churches of having Sunday School for adults and children before or after the service to be attractive.

    The sermon can carry some elements of catechism, and affirmation of creedal statements, but should be more than that.
  • There is another aspect to this to my mind. No single sermon can achieve everything that a sermon might. But then again, no member of a church hears a single sermon over a period; they hear many sermons, by a variable number of hands. It seems to me possible, therefore, that the sermon performs its function over time, in forming and informing the worshipping community, in all available senses of those words. That happens through the whole liturgy, which is the work of all present, and the sermon plays its part in that, in the worshipping of God with mind and heart.
  • magnilo wrote: »
    In evangelical Anglican churches the sermon often pushes out other parts of the liturgy; liturgical confession, the creeds, catechism of children and even the Eucharistic prayer! I don’t think it’s helpful.

    I agree.

    It's often puzzled me as to why some evangelical Anglicans, who can be quite inventive in other spheres, don't utilise the material they've already got in a, scare-quotes, 'evangelical' kind of way.

    They seem hell-bent on nudging aside material that could very easily support their ethos and modus operandi ....

    Just sayin' ...
  • In my experience seldom is one able to weave all three readings from the lectionary into one sermon. I find I need to choose one and develop something that the congregation (I hope) can ponder during the week. If preaching weekly one can weave the one week into another, hopefully making a web of thought and reflection. I think the sermon needs to present an idea, a hope, a practice, to be the yeast to develop in the heart and mind of the hearer during the week or beyond. The sermon can’t be the whole loaf in one sitting.

    I have been preaching in TEC now for over 30 years, and I find that congregations now expect shorter sermons, and will not tolerate longer ones. Perhaps the impact of news-bites and the electronic age, or perhaps I have just become boring! But whatever is presented needs to live on beyond the 10 minutes or so of presentation -- the hearer can, no, should be, challenged to engage at some level so that the word may grow within them.
  • Bishops FingerBishops Finger Shipmate
    edited November 3
    Just dropping in to say that it is I who will (DV) be preaching at tomorrow morning's Eucharist - which is observing 'All Saints' Sunday'.

    I could go on for hours (I keep threatening to produce my 60-minute evangelical sermon), but will probably just try to direct the thoughts of the Faithful Few to the (entirely relevant) lectionary readings for the day, and to the (entirely appropriate) hymns which my fellow Blue-Scarfed Menace has chosen.

    The said homily will be Very Short (5 minutes max. - someone, please catch Baptist Trainfan before he falls over), as we have a brief liturgy for The Commemoration of The Faithful Departed immediately afterwards, plus the usual first-Sunday-of-the-month Ministry of Healing with Anointing etc.!
  • RC priests I believe are required to preach based on the gospel reading of the day, although they may also mention the other readings, so they are not free to pick another reading to focus on like people in some other denominations. The RC rubrics don’t allow for other sermons or sermonettes be included, although explanatory comments are often made at points in the liturgy and sermon like language is sometimes inserted into intercessions and announcements. The Episcopal priests I have observed also tend to preach based on the gospel reading. I have known a very good ELCA preacher at a church where they only had two readings and a psalm (always including a gospel reading), and she would at times preach solely on a non-gospel reading or even on a
    Psalm!

    But since I have mostly attended RC or Episcopal services, I have never heard much preaching on the OT, NT epistles, or the psalms other than an occasional aside about how it relates to the gospel.

    I think it is hard to work preaching into the liturgy when the liturgical texts are pretty fixed. You can work them into the intercession and announcements I guess, but that can make them run on for too long. Some RC priests throw out even the set options for the Eucharistic prayer and do their own improvisational thing based on their homily but that is very much against the rules - and it always comes across as self indulgent (and more relevant to whatever was going through the priest’s mind in seminary in the 1960s-70s than to much of what is going on today).

    People may have had different churches st the RC and Episcopal parishes they have gone to.

    I know that different churches are limited by their own rules and traditions. I just have been infuriated when something happens in the news that shakes and horrifies everyone - even people who normally don’t follow current events - and they receive nothing more than maybe a sentence - or half a sentence in the sermon - and often get left out in the intercessions either because they are read out of the BCP with no additions except for maybe a list of people’s names to pray for, or in the RCC, where intercessions can be more varied, people often forget to include them - or include them with a mere “we pray for the victims of x.”

    Large parts of the specifics of how to live a Christian life or how to live in community as the Church or in society at large are also left out because there often aren’t lectionary gospel readings that specifically address them, too. I could go on and on.

    That is why in my ideal parish in my ideal denomination, there could be all kinds of non-extemporaneous, well crafted sermonettes on a number of readings and topics. One main sermon but not anything 45 minutes long. And it would be a relatively catholic Eucharist service as well. I think you can fit that into 1 hour and 15 minutes or less if you plan things well.
  • Baptist TrainfanBaptist Trainfan Shipmate
    edited November 3
    I just have been infuriated when something happens in the news that shakes and horrifies everyone - even people who normally don’t follow current events - and they receive nothing more than maybe a sentence - or half a sentence in the sermon - and often get left out in the intercessions .
    I think it can be difficult to include current events in the sermon without it seeming forced, especially if its theme has been announced in advance and said event occurs late in the week.

    Having said that there have been one or two times in my career when an event of such magnitude has happened (eg 9/11) that I have rewritten the whole service (not just the sermon) on the Saturday. For instance I changed from the planned service following the Finsbury Park truck attack on the Muslims since the man arrested lives close to our church, it therefore seemed right for us to think of religious tolerance, non-violence etc.

    However there is no excuse for not mentioning outside events in the intercessions, many churches are IMO far too parochial. There's nothing wrong in mentioning Mrs. Brown's ankles but what about the starving millions in Yemen?

  • Al EluiaAl Eluia Shipmate
    mousethief wrote: »
    In my experience, each homilist or preacher has their pet topic or lesson, and manages to find it in every scripture text.

    A priest I know is fond of saying that every preacher only has about 5 or 6 sermons and repeats them in different forms.
  • Gee DGee D Shipmate
    Alas, all too obvious to those in the pews.
  • AravisAravis Shipmate
    There are ways round these problems, but it does involve extra time and effort. It’s manageable for me as I only preach once every 1-2 months.
    All my sermons from the past 3 years are on my iPad, so when I’m writing a sermon, it’s easy to check through the themes I’ve emphasized recently to remind me not to use those for the new sermon if at all possible.
    On Sunday morning I check my emails and a news website in case there is any major event in the congregation or in the world that will be on everyone’s mind. If so, I try to see if it’s possible to bring it into the sermon. If it’s really not possible, there should be time to ask whoever is leading the intercessions to speak briefly about it then.
    Once or twice I’ve completely changed everything I was going to say on the Sunday morning.
    I preach mainly on the gospel about half the time, and the rest of the time mainly on the OT or epistle (it’s rare to be able to use all of them). Last week I mainly used the epistle. The congregation quite likes this for a change, as the vicar and curate almost always preach on the gospel.
  • I recently got a tablet, which I now use for my sermon text as well as the prayers etc (we don't have different people doing different parts of the service). Before then I needed to have everything sorted by Thursday evening so that I could print them all out - any last minute changes needed to be hand written into my notes. But, whether hand written or entered into a tablet, if I'm leading worship then I make a point to watch the news on Sunday morning and check the local news online.

    I have a spreadsheet for all my sermons, listing the lectionary passages and summarising my theme with the passages I've mainly addressed highlighted. A quick check shows that for 30 or so sermons preached I've used only one text on 3 occasions, the rest are split between using 2 passages approximately equally.
  • MrsBeakyMrsBeaky Shipmate
    When my husband and I were mission partners with the Anglican Church in Kenya we spent 9 months preaching most Sundays as honorary Lay Readers in a rural parish where one of our Kenyan clergy friends was seconded after their priest left. There were 10 church congregations in the parish and the three of us would rotate round them.
    My husband and I worked with interpreters as our Kiswahili was not up to a preaching level.
    This of course doubles the length of time of the sermon. Many people in rural Anglican parishes expect LONG sermons which pleased my husband but not so me.......I managed to do about 30 minutes- so 15 minutes of content plus interpretation.
    I would choose one of the readings as a basis for my sermon and refer to the other readings if relevant. When we were attending our home church (the Cathedral in our city ) the sermons often departed from any Lectionary and they would do teaching series (in English) on topics like Leadership and would speak for up to 45 minutes.

    I preferred the rural set-up!
  • BoogieBoogie Shipmate
    mousethief wrote: »
    In my experience, each homilist or preacher has their pet topic or lesson, and manages to find it in every scripture text.

    That’s certainly true at our place.

  • KarlLBKarlLB Shipmate
    edited November 5
    I was responsible for the newsletter at one church and did get into trouble once when I had a spot free which I labelled "Sermon Doodling Spot".

    I'm never sure what sermons are for. People use lots of weird phrases like "cracking open the word" which convey nothing to me; I assume it means telling me what they think the passage means but they could just say that. Not helped by the fact I only manage to stay vaguely Christian by not seeing the Bible as the "word of God" in any way which has much meaning.

    Anyway, trying to avoid further invoking my Pet Issue, I personally find a short sermon which essentially asks a question more useful - and more likely to actually challenge me - than a half hour lecture. I would venture to suggest that should be its primary function.
  • I was once in an English-speaking service in an Anglican church in the Middle East when an (apparently) high status man was asked to do the Bible reading - and at the end of the passage reached into a pocket and gave a ten minute sermon.

    There was a moment of shocked, tense silence then the minister (I think he was the Dean or a Canon, as it was in a cathedral) walked up to the pulpit and have a longish sermon, totally ignoring what the other had said!

    For me, the big problem with sermons is that they are designed for another era (at least in this neck of the woods), where people valued good rhetoric and the best speakers were heard in non-conformist churches week after week. I'm sure people went just to hear the lyrical voices of the minister.

    I'm sure this still happens in some places, but overall the level of public speaking ability in churches I've been to is pretty thin. But at the same time, I'm not sure I'd want to be somewhere with a preacher who had the congregation "in the palm of his hand", as that all seems very manipulative now.

    I think I'm generally more moved by people speaking plainly and simply. And briefly.

  • KarlLB wrote: »
    I personally find a short sermon which essentially asks a question more useful - and more likely to actually challenge me - than a half hour lecture. I would venture to suggest that should be its primary function.
    I would say that a sermon that doesn't challenge the congregation (and the preacher) and cause them to think has failed. Assuredly a primary function.

  • Baptist TrainfanBaptist Trainfan Shipmate
    edited November 5
    Absolutely. Which is why I've been doing a series lately on "Tricky Issues" that Christians ought to think about, such as the Bible as God's Word, Judgement, Patriotism (yesterday), End of Life and ... Church Music! I haven't yet dared touch on Sexuality. Obviously one can't say everything within the time but I hope to get folk thinking from a Biblical, Christian basis.
  • EnochEnoch Shipmate
    Wow. Patriotism would be a lot more courageous these days than sexuality. You may well disagree, but I've serious doubts whether nationalism as currently expressed is compatible with Christian faith at all.
  • Baptist TrainfanBaptist Trainfan Shipmate
    edited November 5
    Totally agree - I was basically suggesting that Christians are members of earthly nations but also of God's Kingdom. They should be good citizens, however (if push comes to shove) loyalty to the latter should trump allegiance to the former. I felt this was particularly important as we're in the run-up to Remembrance.
  • It's hard in churches where ministers are required to preach primarily to the gospel readings and only bring in other readings as support, but in the kind of church that I attend (which have been all like the above), a whole lot of people not only know very little about the OT and the non-gospel part of the NT.

    In the kind of church I attend, adults are very unlikely to ever go to Bible Study, where Bible Study even exists. Some of the older adults may have been to Sunday School as children, but most of the middle aged and younger adults have not. And they are not likely to ever read the Bible, let alone things written about the Bible, on their own. And I am talking about the people who attend church regularly! So a sermon is basically the only opportunity they have to hear Scripture explained to them.

    I know quite a few Christians who have studied a lot about scripture do not like the OT or rest of the NT much. However, I think it is important to know at least a little about both the context of the readings from those parts of the Bible so they can decide to take or leave those parts of the Bible from an informed perspective.
  • Yes. Although I obviously understand that the Gospels are the "story and revelation of Jesus to the world", I also believe in the inspiration and importance of all Scripture - although I have to say that that belief gets stretched by certain parts of the OT! We certainly need the "rest" of the NT as well as the Gospel accounts.
  • EnochEnoch Shipmate
    Totally agree - I was basically suggesting that Christians are members of earthly nations but also of God's Kingdom. They should be good citizens, however (if push comes to shove) loyalty to the latter should trump allegiance to the former. I felt this was particularly important as we're in the run-up to Remembrance.
    I'd agree with that. I'm getting more uncomfortable with Remembrance these days as the number of people who have actually fought in wars are getting fewer, and some of the presentation gets increasingly sentimentalised an emotive - BBC, yes, I'm looking at you.

    In the last few days I've heard some very moving testimony from people who've fought in recent wars about the sort of feelings it stirs up sometimes for them.
  • Absolutely. Which is why I've been doing a series lately on "Tricky Issues" that Christians ought to think about, such as the Bible as God's Word, Judgement, Patriotism (yesterday), End of Life and ... Church Music! I haven't yet dared touch on Sexuality. Obviously one can't say everything within the time but I hope to get folk thinking from a Biblical, Christian basis.

    Blimey, you're brave tackling 'Church Music' ...

    Stick to the Lectionary my friend. Then you needn't tackle it at all unless the reading is about the Tabernacle or Temple. Or stick to the Gospels. Not a lot of mention of music in there ...

    ;)

  • Except perhaps angelic nativity singing ...

    Said sermon went down OK. It wouldn't have done at my last place.
  • IereusIereus Shipmate
    I often preach upon the text of the Apostolic Reading, ie the non-Gospel reading. Orthodox priests are under no requirement to only preach about the Gospel pericope.
    We should preach at every service, so this often runs to 5 or 6 homilies per week!
  • Do you differentiate between teaching and worship?

    Do you know if people take much notice of the teaching?

    Do you think the form of a service needs to take into account that now in most walks of life people are encouraged to participate, respond, and interact? Sometimes our ministers ask for our reaction to something they say. I would like more of this, but then at university, I was known as the one who would ask questions of the lecturer.

    I know that it is difficult to focus on the message if you have a question or disagreement about what is said (or just think the point of the reading has been missed.)
  • I do not think you can distinguish between teaching and worship. Worship here on earth is where we workshop the eternal worship, it is therefore in its entirety a learning experience. We learn through the liturgy, through the hymns, through the prayers, through the sacraments as well as through the sermon.
  • I know that it is difficult to focus on the message if you have a question or disagreement about what is said (or just think the point of the reading has been missed.)
    When I reach I hope that I've enabled people to think about the texts. If someone has questions, disagreements, or simply thinks I've missed something then, by definition, they've been listening to and thinking about what I'm saying. Job done.
  • Baptist TrainfanBaptist Trainfan Shipmate
    edited November 11
    My wife will sometimes say to me, "If I'd been preaching I'd have said ..." to which the only reply can be, "Well, you weren't" - hopefully in a gracious and humble spirit!

    Occasionally one does realise afterwards that one has missed out something important which could have been said. But there's always next time, and we're only human!
  • EnochEnoch Shipmate
    edited November 11
    @Baptist Trainfan I hope she says that afterwards, rather than tells you what to say beforehand like Mrs Proudie. Or worse, perhaps, makes audible tut-tut noises or sucks in through her teeth, while you're in full flight. 😉😛
  • Baptist TrainfanBaptist Trainfan Shipmate
    edited November 12
    Fortunately that's never happened! However I did have a lady with special needs in one of my churches who, if the sermon went on too long, would first cough loudly; then, if that had had no effect, would stretch extravagantly (with an accompanying sigh); and, as a last result, say in a whisper so loud that everyone could hear, "I do wish he'd bloody shut up!"

    She didn't try it on me. I pride myself that I succeeded in engaging with her; but perhaps she'd just twigged that her efforts would be futile. But we had to warn guest preachers!
  • angloidangloid Shipmate
    Every church should have at least one saint like that!
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