I have always thought of myself—certainly with more than a little presumption—as a better than average preacher. Perhaps every preacher thinks so.
But I’ve also studied preaching. I did it from a non-religious point of view, focussing on how preaching persuades, for my Ph.D. work. I’ve taught homiletics to aspiring preachers. And I’ve studied—again, mostly in non-religious settings—how contemporary media has changed both people’s ability to listen and read.
A few people choose their church for theological reasons. They want (for example) a really liberal church. Or a fire-breathing Primitive Baptist church that does revivals. Not many, but a few!
Put aside all these reasons for choosing a church, there are still two matters that count more than almost any other. First, people will make a judgement, upon visiting, about whether or not there is a community in that church that will fit them. A few weeks ago, for example, after attending my congregation a few times, a youngish millennial couple asked me how many other couples their age attended regularly. I gave an honest answer and have not seen them since. And, of course, people looking for community will stay if the community they find truly embraces them.
Second, getting back to preaching, I realize more and more that over time people will make a judgement about where to go to church based on the preaching. If a church wants to maintain its size or grow it will need a preacher who connects on a very regular basis. The room for so-so preaching has shrunk, a lot. People want a preacher who will have them holding their breath to see how “it” turns out. Someone who can make them laugh at themselves. Someone who has something to say that is rooted in the heart of the gospel but that resonates with lived experience. Something more than self-help. Someone who is compelling but doesn’t nag. Someone who says the mystery in a way they feel it. Someone who connects with their fear and hopes.
So, though I like to think of myself as that preacher, as I enter my final season as a preacher, I have begun, in spite of what I’ve said so far, to question how much of a difference I can make as a preacher.
Let me explain the reasons why. Although they are informed by my studies, what I’m sharing now is my gut feeling about these things. I’m interested in what others may think.
First, it is harder to make an impression as a preacher because audiences don’t listen anymore with the same skill and attention that they used to. Once upon a time preachers created sermons in the image of the essay or book. This worked, because people tended to read a lot. They were deft at figuring out linear, rational, ordered arguments.
But these sort of sermons work with a smaller and smaller demographic. Partly this is because attention spans are way shorter than they used to be. If you are not sure this is the case, check out the literature. It takes a lot more skill to gain the attention or your audience, keep it, and engage it than it used to.
Second, people also have a harder time attending to sermons because the most common model for sermons a generation ago was the book, but it isn’t anymore. Books—and good essays—are linear. They build their case cumulatively and rationally. They use reason and narrative. And when people used to listen to sermons, they listened with the ears of readers.
But people do not read as much as they used to. They find it difficult to attend to sustained narrative. The books they do read—just check out how many there are in any bookstore—are often self-help books that are long lists of “to do’s.” Books are far more fractured and less narratively sensible than they used to be. If narrative preaching is a partial answer to this reality, it has to be the sort of narrative that non-readers used to be able to listen to—legends, sagas, parables and so on. Walter Ong’s description of the psychodynamics of orality helps me here, but challenges me too. It’s hard.
Third, I’ve also become less sure of myself as a preacher because I’ve become acutely aware of my own uncertainties and waffling. I live with ambiguity when it comes to what and how to preach. I used to be able to count on people being interested in the truth of dogmas, for example, and spent time trying to get those dogmas across. But I’m done with dogma myself, so it doesn’t make for great preaching fodder anymore.
Fourth, I’ve become less sure of myself as a preacher because I know that my status—perhaps role is a better word—as preacher has changed over the years. I cannot rely, any longer, on being listened to because, well, I’m a preacher and I know. People don’t sit down convinced that they need to listen; they sit down to decide whether or not they will listen. People don't come to church believing that they are empty vessels that just need to be filled.
What to do about this? Well, I take longer to write than I used to. I pay more attention to how sagas and legends were told in an era before people read. I count on my current audience’s high level of literate education than I used to, so I can be forgiven a bit more. I try new things: preaching secular texts and songs, using drama, interactive exercises. But I’m an amateur at much of this, unsure of how to embrace it and make it work.
The bottom line? Preaching is harder than ever. There is no excuse for business as usual. We have to take risks. We have to speak to what people are really wondering about. And we have to keep on trying.