24 September 2013

American Top 40 Pop Sermons

In thinking about discussions of preaching that I've observed and overheard in recent years, I'm struck by how much the measure and criteria of "a great sermon" sounds like a description of Top 40 pop:

Short and catchy, with a memorable hook and emotional ka-ching.

The emotional ka-ching seems usually to be a matter of feeling good about feeling bad, and finding comfort in being convicted; as though such feelings of self-reproach and shame were tantamount to repentance.  Maybe I've simply been in the wrong places at the wrong times, but I haven't heard as much excitement about the actual preaching of the Gospel of forgiveness, as I regularly hear about the sharp preaching of the Law.  But that fits with the pop music analogy, too: Nothing packs quite the emotional wallop of regret.

I'm not sure whether American Top 40 pop sermons are good or bad.  I think it's a bit of both, so there's my cop out answer.  I do see the benefit to keeping sermons short and simple, focusing on one main point, and connecting with the hearers in a way that is memorable.  I'm constantly working at writing that way, although I doubt that I'll ever be good at it.  Maybe that's my problem: I'm envious and jealous of those who can do this.  The temptation, not unlike the world of commercial music, is to follow the formula and attempt to copy the chart toppers.  Been there, done that, and it doesn't work for me.  I go from bad to worse.

But I do wish it wasn't so easy to be distracted from the real heart and goal of sermons, which is, I believe, the preaching of repentance unto faith in the forgiveness of sins, and the comfort of the Gospel of Christ.  I know that is what I need, myself, and it is what I long to give to those entrusted to my preaching and pastoral care.


Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

I've heard various people make dogmatic assertions that anything over twelve minutes is worthless and wasted. I'm always bemused by such comments, because it seems a shame that Moses and the Prophets, Christ and His Apostles wasted so many words. Of course, none of us is Christ; nor are any of us Prophets and Apostles. But, so far as I have been able to tell, the early church fathers and the Lutheran reformers did not abide by this time limit, either. They were preaching to a different culture, day and age, so maybe that's the reason for the change; but I don't know how that's any different than the typical arguments in favor of "church growth" "creative worship."

I've heard others decry short sermons, too, and insist that a sermon has to be twenty minutes or so to do the job. I don't buy that line of reasoning any better than the notion of a twelve-minute limit. A long sermon may be redundant, like most of mine are, and a short sermon may be inadequate in some aspect or other; but it isn't necessary the case. Evaluating sermons on the basis of length is as wrong-headed as determining worthiness and readiness for the Sacrament on the basis of age (whether it by high, low, or in between). Repentance and faith are not measured with a stop watch or a calendar, but are granted by the Word and Spirit of God, where and when it pleases Him, in those who hear the Gospel.

I do believe that rhetorical skill and careful craftsmanship are appropriate to sermon writing; not for their own sake, nor for the sake of the preacher's popularity, but for the sake of clarity in the preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Thank God that He causes that Word to be proclaimed and heard, in spite of the frailty of His messengers.

Susan said...

Uh ... there's a lot to be said for redundancy. (Look at the Torah, for instance.)

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Indeed, Susan. And we are told to look at it again, and again, and again, every morning and evening, and to share it daily with our children, etc.

But, sometimes, there's just a lot said, and more than one needs to say in a single sermon. That's often me. I know it, and regret it, and I work to avoid it. But repetition in itself, or redundancy, as one might say, is not always a bad thing; the mother of learning, and all that, and the heart of catechesis.

I worry when I hear people disparage the repetition of that which is the basic apostolic kerygma, as though it had already served its purpose and was now better off laid aside.

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