Friday, February 10, 2012

Entertaining Preaching

I am not the world's best preacher.  A reasonable appraisal of my own abilities, measured against those I've heard preach, leads me to figure I'm above average.  Not stellar, but not half bad.  Not earth-shaking, though enough Sundays lately seem to resonate with folks to keep me encouraged.

Here, I find myself musing over an article...a few years old...that recently wended my way through the Facebookery of the Vice Moderator of the denomination.  In an opinion piece from the New York Times, a Congregationalist pastor lamented the tendency for pastors to burn out, and gave his thesis as to why that is such a frequent occurrence.  His appraisal?  

According to that pastor, the problem is that congregations don't want to be taught.  They want to be entertained.  Rather than seeking the clear moral instruction that they should be seeking, they're looking to be affirmed in what they already know.  And they want a couple of jokes thrown in.  Oh, and it can't run more than 10 minutes.  Here we are now, entertain us!  Does this smell like church spirit to you

There is some truth in this, of course.  But I've known many pastors, and have heard their laments about their personal and spiritual exhaustion.   What I haven't ever heard is "entertaining sermons" presented as the problem.  Leaders of congregations burn out when they're overburdened with administrative requirements, when church is all about facility and carpets and task force meetings about liability exposure.

What burns out pastors are the seemingly endless interpersonal dramas that groups of human beings generate.  What fries pastors are the flames they have to stomp out, particularly the heat rising from the smoldering whisperings of those apparently inextinguishable human tire-fires in your community.

But entertaining preaching?  I'm not sure about that.  Neither am I sure that it's a bad thing.

Because good preaching is entertaining.  It's funny.  It's moving.  It's delightful.  It's challenging.

A good sermon does not feel long, even if it goes for 45 minutes.  A good sermon can run five minutes, and still convey one concept potently.  A good sermon involves rapport, as preacher and congregation connect.  It doesn't have to get all call-and-responsey, but a little bit of that is a good thing.

The challenge facing most overeducated Presbyterian pastors is that our task is not simply to give instruction.  Preaching is not the conveying of data.  It is not a board room presentation, or an academic lecture.  It bears no resemblance to the presentation of research results at a scholarly conference, or the oral presentation of a particularly hard-hitting article.   Even the most potent ethical or theological insight will transform no lives if it is smothered under mumbled bullet-point droning.

It needs to inspire, and to interest, and to stir the minds and hearts of the listeners, even...and particularly...if they don't totally agree with the pastor's interpretation.

If all you're doing is entertaining, that's a problem.  If it's all canned anecdotes and in-jokes smattered with a generic scripture here and there, all fluff and treacle signifying nothing, then you're not teaching.  You're just pretending to preach.

But if everyone's asleep, you're not teaching either.  If a congregation asks...please...try to make it interesting....that's well within their right to expect.