Why are so many sermons painful experiences? They can sometimes be long drawn-out affairs (sometimes an hour or more) that seem to go everywhere and yet nowhere. I think in theological circles that have been influenced heavily by the Puritans and the Awakenings, a certain cross-pollinated phenomenon occurs: Sermon Craps.
First, the Puritans gave us the idea that sermons should be long didactic lectures that run over numerous main points and voluminous sub-points. This was obviously an effective way of doing preaching in mono-ethnic English-speaking cultures in the 17th-19th Centuries but we live in a different time and place in 21st Century America. Getting angry at your audience or lamenting the loss of the abilities of a bygone generation in this generation to absorb sometimes ponderous material does little to advance the Kingdom of God in our day. It takes a very skilled orator to pull off a Puritan-style sermon in the 21st Century. Don't try this at home.
Next, the Awakenings gave the evangelical community a large corpus of homiletical hagiography. There are numerous preachers’ tales but they typically revolve around a similar core:
“In 1802, Reverend Phinehas Gassaway Bump was ordained to the Gospel ministry as pastor of the Olive Branch Memorial Presbyterian Church in Stank, Pennsylvania. Until 1834 his ministry was exceptionally unimpressive and his long doctrinal sermons (many two hours or longer) were known to cure the finest specimens of insomniacs. A parishioner, Leonides T. Hendershoot, later remarked that Bump was ‘the most singularly boring parson I ever heard.’ It was in the fateful year of 1834 that Reverend Bump preached a sermon entitled ‘When Sinners Die: A Gospel exposition of the strange happenings of the heart affections of the unregenerate man who comes to a right appraisal of his own sin before the glorious grace and mercy of an angry and judicious God.’ As Bump preached, his congregation felt strangely warmed. Strangers came to the windows. As the hours passed, farmers and merchants passing through the town while breaking the Sabbath began standing on each other’s shoulders, sometimes three high, all to get a look at and hear the little parson aflame. When the worship service ended 8 hours later, 128 new souls were added to the rolls of Olive Branch Memorial Presbyterian Church but Bump never preached a sermon with such vigor and pathos again.”(Marcus Hilcox Blainberger, Revival, Reviving, Revivers and Those Revived, 1988)
So, this idea that we do nothing, God does it all when he chooses to bless our preaching (a true statement but not the full picture), I believe, gives many preachers free reign to not think about…to empathize with, the poor souls in the pews. “God will perhaps one day bless us with an awakening but until then, I will preach on what I find interesting.” And so, each week, many pastors who give little thought to their actual flesh and blood audience, roll the craps; maybe this week might be the exception to the rule.
Well, I think we should pack it in, tight and beefy, and right to the point. We need to, as my old homiletics professor used to say, “exegete our audience” even as you exegete your text.