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The writings of author, therapist, and priest Robert Warren Cromey.

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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

How to Listen to a Sermon

How to Listen to a Sermon

A friend, a thoughtful layperson asked me what criteria I use for evaluating a sermon? Good question. There are few helps for lay people on how to listen to a sermon and what to look for in a preacher’s efforts.

Here are some items I think are important to keep in mind when listening to a sermon.

Length – In the context of Eucharist a sermon should be no longer than fifteen minutes and preferably twelve. A traditional Sunday morning liturgy has four readings from the Bible, Old Testament, Psalm, New Testament and Gospel. (That is far too many for human beings to bear. Most people couldn’t pass a quiz on what was in any of them save a really good gospel story, maybe.) Then there is the lengthy Nicene Creed, endless prayers of the people, which in many churches include a boring telephone book list of people in sickness, toil and trouble, most of whom no one has ever heard of. Then there is the long Thanksgiving consecration of the elements, then lines of people taking communion. Fifteen minutes for the sermon is plenty in that context. If the service is Morning or Evening Prayer on a Sunday, a twenty to twenty-five minute sermon might be endurable.

Theme – Does the sermon have a central theme or point? Can it be summed up in one sentence? I heard a sermon that dealt with the following themes: The spirit works outside the normal channels, the culture yearns for the spirit, environmentalism, various uses of salt, ordained through adversity and finding Christ in others. All of the themes were important and helpful for living the Christian life. Any one of them would have made a fine sermon. Dealing with too many themes makes the sermon long, confusing and unfocused.

Bible – How does the preacher use the Bible? With four Bible passages to choose from, the preacher has many choices. Sadly many preachers feel they have to mention all four passages, plus a sacrament or two. A good sermon deals with one major theme and one passage from the Bible. It is hard for some preachers to focus on a simple theme that emerges from the scripture. If the preacher bounces around from passage to passage, he or she is confusing to the congregation. Thrusting the Bible in the face of the people is a way of exerting power over people who respect the Bible but don’t know much about it. Lay people may tend to be intimidated by the superior knowledge of preachers who indeed do know more about the Bible than most lay people. The preacher who tosses around lots of Bible references usually has not made a decision of a clear, simple, major theme to share with the people.

Stories – What most people walk away with from a sermon is a good story. Jesus was a storyteller, an artist, who told stories to teach his understanding of the word of God. The Good Samaritan and The Prodigal Son are among the most famous stories remembered by millions of Christians and others. No sermon should end without the recounting of a story NOT in the Bible. The story should be from real life in the world, from the newspapers, the people in the parish (not the confessional), the city and community where people live. To retell a story that has just been read at the gospel is an insult to the intelligence of the listeners. Stories gleaned from literature, TV, movies, sit-coms, theater and songs often reflect the hurts and joys of human life and can inspire Christian people to forgiveness and love. Autobiographical stories help humanize the preacher. A sermon without a story is like a meal without salt.

Life Now – A sermon should relate the gospel of Jesus to how we are in the world right now. It should be real and concrete and not airy-fairy full of ideas and concepts. Love, compassion, forgiveness, healing and community are gospel themes that relate directly to how we treat each other in church, school, work, and family. The gospel relates to how our nation acts in the world. How does the gospel relate to race, sex, war, torture, abuse and so many more issues?

Call to Action – A good sermon ends in a call to action. The preacher can move the congregation to action in the world based on the social, personal and political issues we all face every day. Write a letter, visit the sick, give money to a cause, teach a child and yell at the president.

I suggest people listen and take notes when listening. It will be much easier to stay awake and will help in understanding what is being said. The structure, or lack of it, of the sermon will be more apparent.

Give the preacher good sermon feedback. Be concrete. Not just, “I liked your sermon.” But “I enjoyed your view of the Eucharist, the story of the virgin birth or homosexuality.” Or perhaps you disagreed with something specific. Say that.

Most preachers get very little concrete helpful feedback. Most of us need it regularly. One book I read suggested regular feedback sessions with members of the congregation. Another suggested the preacher sit with people and study the passages from the Bible to be read the following Sunday and help come up with sermon ideas.

I’d be interested in any feedback or others ideas about preaching which you might have after reading this piece.

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