Preaching Polls

Ok—I need your help.

I’ve got some questions that I’d like some completely honest (and completely anonymous) answers to. I’m wondering about the process of preaching—particularly in terms of sermon composition—both from the clergy and the lay perspective. As a result, I’m going to put up a couple of informal, unscientific polls in order to get a sense of where things are for the clergy and the laity in the audience.

Like I said, this is completely anonymous. please don’t try to second-guess the questions, just lay it out there. I’d love some follow-up comments as well if you’ve got them or want to clarify an answer or add a more precise one. Again—be as public or as anonymous as you want to be.

If you’re wondering what this is for, it’s more coming out of my own curiosity as much as anything else. Folks who’ve been around for a while know my background–for those who haven’t hitting a few biography points may be helpful. I have a Ph.D. in New Testament but my main interest in the field is how the New Testament gets applied congregationally, particularly in preaching and the liturgy. Homiletics (the upscale term for preaching) was my outside area (secondary specialty) in my Ph.D.  I served a Lutheran congregation for a year as a pastoral intern and preached at least twice a month, often more, and did supply work before my move to the Episcopal Church. So I know what it’s like to write a sermon in the midst of a busy clergy schedule. I’ve also been a clergy spouse for 6+ years; I’ve seen my wife juggle sermon-writing with all of her other duties. I’ve taught 6 semesters of preaching n seminary in addition to my academic work so I know what’s taught and what pitfalls preaching teachers are trying to help their students avoid. I’ve also sat in congregations for 30+ years as a regular pew-warmer and listened to (and analyzed and judged) sermons from that perspective. All in all, I think I have a pretty well-rounded experience around the process. So—I know what I did when I preached; I know what my wife does when she preaches. What do you do? Or what do you want to hear?

(I’d also appreciate links to this post so I can get a wider set of responses!)

Please be honest—this is for posterity… :-)

For the Clergy…


For the Laity…

12 thoughts on “Preaching Polls

  1. Christopher

    Derek, I wanted to be able to write something. The choices don’t quite reflect my take.

    I’m one of those lay people who can mirror some of your own experience, as an occasional preacher myself and spouse of a pastor.

    Recycling is a complex matter for me, and one I don’t do for myself because each reading and proclamation of the Scriptures is fresh within the context of a given moment. But then, I have the luxury of time when it comes to preparing sermons even amidst my hectic schedule, meaning that I don’t have a fresh one to prepare come every Sunday.

    Is it that the preacher recycles certain content or hermeneutical insights and applies them to the current concerns of the congregation and surrounding society in which they find themselves that Jesus Christ might speak to their situation? Or is it wholecloth reuse? The former is more palatable to me because the preacher at least is clear that Jesus Christ must speak to this congregation within this moment/context. The latter seems to me to miss part of the point of a sermon, as the moment/context it was intended to speak no longer exists. It misses something of the event character of liturgy. And if it isn’t a good reused sermon, well, better to acknowledge that this Sunday, I will be preaching a sermon by Luther or Taylor or one of the Fathers. And that gets us to delivery…please, please don’t read from the pulpit. This is proclamation. We are supposed to meet Christ in the hearing.

  2. Annie Ham

    I’m fairly forgiving in the role of pew sitter. I actually admire the effort involved. Maybe this is because I have had a very dedicated priest for the past twenty years or so and most of the sermons I have heard have been his. I think repetition is built into the process due to the limited scriptural resource and theological limitations. I would like more emphasis on spiritual growth, in general (although my priest is quite good at this, too). I hate to say this, but I have begun to consider the possibility that some of the stranger things that are happening in Christianity today are done in a very human and unspiritual effort to keep the sermon fresh and entertaining. We are not there to be entertained. I like thought provoking, inspiring sermons.
    I confess to having spent too much time on Beliefnet. What I see across the board in Christianity is a lack of comprehension of the reconciling act of Christ and how that effects us. I find a lot of disbelief in spirituality and hardly any focus on the mystery, even open shunning of these concepts. I see too much emphasis on sin and not enough on the change in the life of the faithful. I see too much emphasis on Christ’s divinity and not enough on his humanity making his life meaningless and his act on the cross even more meaningless (see what atheists have to say on the subject). I see too much inflexibility in the interpretation of scripture and pew sitters should be shown its depth–Christianity has become a very shallow and judgmental religion emphasizing right belief over faith and the laity and probably the clergy don’t appear to understand the difference. I am especially concerned about the upcreep of fundamentalism especially in hermeneutics. People are confused about the promises made in scripture and the lack of fulfillment of them so they have begun to make things up. I see a lot of change in recent years and I don’t think our faith should change much at all over centuries much less over decades. The Church Fathers and the early church are a tremendous resource. And finally, I find few Christians who understand what unity in Christ really means–and the very important difference he wrought in our status as being separated from God. What gives?! We are not in the pews to be eternal beginners–we need spiritual maturation and real faith.

  3. Jonathan

    As a general rule, I don’t go to church for the sermon. Perhaps things would be different if I was more familiar with the sermons from earlier eras, but it feels like the foundations are to simple to require frequent repetition, while the application to daily life is to personalized to preach most of the time. Really the only thing I can imagine wanting to hear preached is an exhortation to live the Christian life more intensely and intentionally and that sort of sermon needs to be paired with concrete assistance within the parish to help the intention bear fruit.

  4. bls

    What I love hearing is exposition of Biblical texts on the macro scale – as we’ve talked about before, Biblical writers are carrying on a two-thousand-year-long conversation! – and how this exposition really can and does mean something for human beings today.

    And of course, history since then – via art and literature and all aspects of human culture etc. – has been a part of that conversation, too. I mean, we are still part of the Judeo-Christian culture today, and still very much within its corona, even though other cultures have their influence as well. So to me, the long view is important – and I guess this means I think preachers should be extremely well-grounded in Bible in particular.

    Anyway, it’s terrific to listen to somebody with a masterful grasp of a text – any text, really, but I think the Bible is especially fascinating, probably because it’s full of stories! – talk about it, and make interesting connections.

    So, I actually don’t care at all about re-use of material. If it’s interesting, and if it applies – go for it. It’s impossible to step in the same river twice anyway, right?

    Thanks for letting us be part of “posterity studies”! ;-)

  5. scoop2go

    I too am a lay person who occasionally preaches. I spend a lot of time on my sermons– on the plus side, I am usually given at least a month in advance to prep, but on the downside I have a full-time job as a teacher and a mother of three teens, so I have to squeeze in exegesis and sermon-writing around all that. Actually preparing a sermon and delivering it out loud puts a whole new perspective on it.

    From a literary standpoint, I love the work of PG Wodehouse, and there is a hilarious short story he wrote about “The Great Sermon Handicap” where a group of friends placed bets about which parson would give the longest sermon, in which it was obvious the clergy involved recycled sermons regularly. Then there is the practice among some in the CofE of using Fordyce’s Sermons to Young Women regularly in the late 18th century, as was gently mocked in Pride and Prejudice. I also adore the books by Barbara Brown Taylor and Fred Craddock of their sermons.

    As a preacher and as a layperson, I can see that someone who does this full time is going to cover some of the same ground every three years in the lectionary cycle. However, it is also important to make the sermon relevant, so I can’t imagine just recycling a sermon in a wholesale way.

    I have used commentaries, websites (Working Preacher, the Text This Week, etc.) and the like because I am aware that millions of others who are far more competent have gone before me in preaching the texts and that their insight is invaluable. Nonetheless, I think it is important to preach from the heart if possible, and so I try to make the sermons I preach my own and not a copy of someone else’s work. This probably also comes from my sensitivity to plagiarism as a teacher, and yes, it is possible to plagiarize yourself. Some overlap when thousands of preachers are dealing with the same texts is inevitable, but what is also amazing is the wide variety of sermons that can be generated from the very same texts.

  6. John-Julian, OJN

    Back in 1987 I was away from the parish for a week and a local retired priest supplied on the Sunday I was gone. When I returned, I found he had left his sermon notes on the pulpit————they were headed: “Second Sunday after Trinity, 1932″—the year I was born!

  7. Charles Wingate

    Three comments on recycled sermons and prep:

    (1) A priest I knew had a file cabinet with nine cards for each Sunday, one for each lesson of years A, B, and C. The card had brief notes for a sermon on one of the three lessons for that Sunday.

    (2) Back why I was at St. Philip’s Laurel, Sam Wysong did the same sermon for Christmas Eve, every year. I didn’t mind that, because it was a crackerjack sermon. Some things bear repeating.

    (3) Nobody can beat the Orthodox for sermon recycling: they’ve been using Chrysostom’s Easter sermon now for, what, 1500 years plus?

    I only mind recycled material when it’s bad material. The things that I find off-putting are (a) hackneyed and wrong factoids and anecdotes, (b) preaching that has only a tenuous connection to the text, and (c) rambling or otherwise ill-organized presentations.

    As far as my own lay sermon prep is concerned, I don’t have any commentaries. (Lord knows there are already way too many books in our house.) I do use the internet copiously as an alternative. And I write the whole thing out ahead of time, because I am a good reader but not a good extemporizer.

  8. Steve

    Many years ago I used to write sermons, but almost never do now. I read the Epistle and Gospel reading beforehand, and think about what to say, but what I actually say depends on who is at church that day. I tend to tailor it to the audience. And sometimes it is in reading the Gospel immediately beforehand, in the service itself, that something strikes me, and that is what I preach on. In the Orthodox Church we have very little in the way of ex tempore prayer, but ex tempore preaching is common.

  9. Jon in the Nati

    There are two concerns that I often have with the preaching. My experience is in the Episcopal Church (several years), the Anglican continuum (two years) and the Roman Catholic Church (three years and going).

    -Preaching on the propers is comparatively rare, although the continuum priests were the best on it. Often the readings for the day will be referenced only tangentially, and there is very little close study at the words of the texts. I am not asking for protestant-style, line-by-line exegesis and exposition, but taking some time to comment on the scriptural passages (which, lets face it, are often taken out of context and are sometimes not terribly clear on their face) would be most welcome in my mind.

    -Something I find troublingly common is the preaching of messages that are not appropriate to the occasion. This happens most commonly on feast days. For instance, on Christ the King this year (a holyday meant to celebrate, among other things, the universal kingship of Christ, His eventual return, and the Last Judgment), the rector took the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats and turned it into a sort of “Jesus’ Tips for Better Living” sermonette. No mention of the relevant themes of the day. There is so much material to mine here, especially on the great feasts, and yet there seems to be very little effort to do so.

    Again, this is only my experience.

  10. Precentor

    What do I want to hear? Exegesis of the scriptures and (especially on feasts) the liturgy, and their application to something (anything!) – personal, communal, familial, mystagogical, ascetical, political, doctrinal, economic, moral, ethical, whatever. Long or short, funny or serious, elevated or simple, doesn’t matter – and, while not wishing to discount the ongoing activities of the Spirit, I would much rather a sermon be heavily informed by the vast wealth of extant commentary than pulled out of the preacher’s arse in an attempt to make it ‘fresh’ or ‘relevant’.

    Instead, the texts usually engaged by the rota of half a dozen regular preachers in my parish are one or more of the following: The Acts of the Preacher’s Family, The Chronicles of What I Learned in Seminary (apparently quite a slim volume, less and less frequently referred to), the Revelation to Me as I Looked at the Clergy Schedule This Morning and Realized I Had the Service, or the Gospels according to Football, Television, Hollywood, and Nostalgia; the point is simplistic, and the application missing altogether. I might chalk this trend up to busy schedules dominated by parish program management rather than prayer, study, and spiritual formation if it didn’t seem that the direction was deliberate: I increasingly hear repeated from the pulpit (or, also increasingly, from the aisle, accompanied by the clerical box-step and adorned with waves of a leathern Prayer Book–Hymnal, the Episcopalian version of the floppy Bible) the vague assertion that it’s all about ‘story’; indeed, the Rector has repeatedly said that one’s own story is the most important text of all, and this formula has now been enshrined in an additional post-Gospel acclamation introduced ostensibly for the sake of the children: ‘This is our story!’ (mercifully I was at least allowed to add, before the Gospel, ‘This is his story’, and to set the whole within a formula reminiscent of Gospel announcements and blessings in Eastern liturgies, which seemed the least bad approach to take under the circumstances). It has become such an insistent refrain that I can’t help wondering what book they’ve all been reading; perhaps other readers can enlighten me. While I think the Rector is probably trying to say that one can, does, and must seek and encounter Christ in one’s own life and circumstances, I fear that many of our parishioners, most of whom live in an affluent ghetto and certainly not in a strong Church culture, may hear instead a blanket endorsement of the status quo.

    For my part, some days it’s all I can do not to walk out on a detailed fifteen-minute exposition of, e.g., ‘Sons of Anarchy’, waiting for a point that will never come.

    Here endeth the lesson.

  11. Precentor

    You can! I fear there’s plenty more where that came from, though I do try to restrain myself.

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