On Not Getting Anything Out of Sermons

Microphone on open Bible by Arthur Miranda Unsplash

By Joseph Mangina

Feb 03, 2020

This blog post is adapted and abbreviated from an article by Prof. Mangina that appeared in The Living Church, Jan. 1, 2012

Some years ago I had an interesting email exchange with a theologian friend at another institution, someone I’ve known since our days together in graduate school. We got to talking about the state of contemporary preaching. My friend asked the arresting question: “How do we get preachers to get people into the story rather than trying to get something out of it?” How, in other words, do we convince seminarians, priests, and pastors that the Bible is not a resource to be accessed but a world to be entered into? That to ask the question of the Bible’s “relevance” is to commit a terrific category error, since the Bible does not want to be relevant to our concerns, but to make us relevant to its concerns?

My friend went on to quote one of our grad school teachers, who said that you can always tell which direction of interpretation is operative in any sermon you hear. My friend agreed with this perspective, adding that sermons that take the wrong direction—beginning with relevance—are also “unutterably boring.” But it’s very difficult to teach this, he said: pastors (like everyone else) either tend to “get” it or they don’t. The upshot is that we have to aim at a kind of intellectual and theological conversion, showing people in a variety of ways what good preaching looks like until they “get it.” After that, they will have no interest in looking back.

I could not agree more

I could not agree more—not only about the “unutterably boring” character of much contemporary preaching but about the need for conversion of our imaginations. The idea that preaching should be experiential, pragmatic, and purpose-driven is so deeply woven into the fabric of North American Christianity that we can hardly imagine it should be otherwise. The sermon must always have something useful in it, some moral or lesson that people can “take home with them.”

But now let us suppose that all this is deeply misguided. Imagine that we have caught a glimpse of another reality, another world. Suddenly we grasp that the Bible is not about human doings and human problems. It is not really about us at all, but about God. And because it is about God it has its own weird logic, expressed in a strange, wonderful vocabulary—words like election, creation, flesh, spirit, grace, law, apocalypse. Instead of just another self-help manual, the Bible offers us something far more interesting—an account of life, the only life indeed that is worth having; life that comes from God and leads to God. Hearing of such a life, who would not be willing to surrender everything in exchange?

This is, to be sure, a theologian’s way of expressing the matter. To which the working priest or pastor may be forgiven for replying, “Yes, but does it preach?” True, the sermon is ultimately—is essentially—about God. But it is also spoken to the assembly and to the particular people within it. The preacher cannot simply dwell in the lectionary text but must take the risk of interpreting the text for “Mrs. Murphy,” as the great Benedictine scholar Aidan Kavanaugh liked to put it. Kavanaugh was speaking of liturgy, but his counsel applies equally well to the sermon. If the sermon does not address the needs of Mrs. Murphy, it is hard to see why we should even bother.

I will bend on this point, but I will not break.

Yes, of course, the text must be interpreted for the hearers. Yes, of course, the preacher must venture into the world in front of the text, the world of our hopes, fears, desires, longings, and secret guilts. This is harder work than it sounds. There is a certain kind of “biblical preaching” that rests content with an easy, obvious paraphrase of Scripture; that takes no risks, and that therefore reaps few rewards. It is not simply that such a preacher has expounded the text but ignored the world, but has not even expounded the text. “Truth” in preaching is not just fidelity to the Bible, it is the two-edged sword of the Word disclosing how things really stand with us. To use technical language, there is no real explicatio or meditatio without applicatio; no exegesis or reflection without application.

All this is perfectly true. Awareness of context, knowledge of one’s hearers, a certain political and cultural sensitivity—all these are essential items in the preacher’s toolkit. Yet they are not the main thing. God is the main thing. God is what your congregation expects to hear from you, not your jokes or political commentary or stories about your children. I will even call Mrs. Murphy as my witness here. Aidan Kavanagh’s point about Mrs. Murphy was not, as we might think, that we should revise the liturgy to make her feel more at home. Quite the opposite: Mrs. Murphy knows what the liturgy is about—mystery, sacrifice, grace, God—far better than many a learned liturgist. The scholar wants the liturgy to be more user-friendly while Mrs. Murphy wants to adore the Trinity. We had better not, then, condescend to Mrs. Murphy.

The same thing applies to preaching.

If we step into the pulpit worried about what the congregation or we ourselves can “get out of it,” the battle is already lost. As my friend put it, our primary task is to get into the story—the story of the God who creates from nothing and who justifies the ungodly. Fleming Rutledge has laid down the homiletical rule that God needs to be the subject of the verbs. The worry this evokes—that there will be nothing left for us to “do”—betrays a deep misunderstanding, for among the chief things God creates from nothing are empowered human agents. If we begin with God’s agency, then human agency will inevitably follow, whereas the opposite is not true. This is the very logic of our lives in Christ, liberated by grace and freed for good works.

There is more to be said about what all this might look like in practice. It would, I’d suggest, mean spending relatively less time on the gospel lessons, relatively more time on the Old Testament and the Epistles. Although the gospels are central to our faith, in our present context they are all too easily moralized: do act more like Jesus, don’t act like those stupid disciples, etc. But whichever texts we preach on, our preaching should be guided by the conviction that the Word of God is sovereign and sufficient, that it makes sense of our lives more than we make sense of it. Get into the story, and you may be surprised by grace.

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Joseph Mangina is Professor of Systematic Theology at Wycliffe College.