Has preaching had its day?
Is the sermon an outdated mode of communication? I often ask myself that question. Sometimes, the answer is Yes! Standing at the back of the church, it's easier to see a number of people distracted by their phones! In the simple struggle for the audience to give full attention and the preacher to get it, the battle for real communication may already have been lost!
At other times, when the church becomes hushed and there is that quality you get in a room when real connections are being made, my answer to the question is No - absolutely not. But there is no doubt about the size of the challenge in learning to make it all happen better.
In a world where ‘what’s true for you is not always true for me’, spiritual truth has become an individual rather than a shared commodity. Leaders in business, in politics and in education face a huge challenge in articulating ‘shared’ truths which groups of their ‘followers’ can identify and share. The difficulties of using language to build 21st century communities has been amply demonstrated in political life. It’s not only preachers who face an enormous challenge every time it’s their turn to address ‘the masses’.
So can we still look to public speaking to connect? Especially religious public speaking? In church, of course, we have a particular problem – first, because we are talking about invisible but highly influential matters – and also because so much of our lives are ruled by screens and their visible pictures.
Last month, I heard Mark Oakley, Dean of St John's College, Cambridge, and a former residentiary canon of St Paul's Cathedral, speak about the preacher as ‘poet, prophet and professor’. Preachers clearly need to be all three.
Oakley is a man who speaks in ‘quotable quotes’. One of his most significant lines was, ‘The church is there to answer Pontius Pilate’s question, ‘What is truth?’
Telling ‘truth’ - therein lies the problem. ‘Fake news’ both religious and secular makes it so much harder to tell any truth and share ‘the’ good news. The simple marketing slogans we hear all the time can make subtle words of spiritual discernment seem like a foreign language. Literalism can seem so much more attractive than poetry and parable and than the paradox and mystery which scripture offers.
Finding a way to speak about heavenly matters in earthly language is an enormous challenge. It is a rare preacher who can use language which is neither ‘too heavenly’ to be any use outside the church nor so ‘colloquial’ that no understanding of anything but today’s world is possible.
I once heard the challenge to preachers named in this way – ‘How can you name God in this situation?’ How can you learn to see your hearers, all your lives, and the situations in which you find yourselves in the light of God and God’s word? How can you share that experience in a way which enables your hearers to know God better?
Oakley reported research which asked churchgoers, ‘What are the top three things that you want in church?’ and ‘‘What are the top three things that disappoint you? The sermon was always in the top three in both lists. Clearly, despite all the competition, churchgoers hope to receive something significant from preachers – even if they are sometimes disappointed.
This all suggests that the creation of good sermons is a two-way process. Both preachers and listeners can profit from feedback about their experiences. Churches can create together a mutual spiritual encounter becoming what Oakley called ‘a laboratory for the soul’.
Recently I heard three very different sermons on a podcast from St Martin in the Fields - each of them an exemplary sample of the art...