I don’t like listening to sermons.
Now, this may come as a bit of a surprise, since I am essentially a professional sermon-writer. A significant portion of every week of my life for the last years has been spent composing, reflecting upon, and delivering sermons. And yet I don’t enjoy listening to them.
It wasn’t always this way. When I was maturing in my faith during high school and university the sermon was a hugely significant part of my spiritual development. I listened on Sundays, I listened on the radio, I listened as often as I was able because, in the sermons I heard, I felt that I was being really fed. And yet something changed.
Upon reflection, there are several potential reasons for why the sermon has soured for me, and the first real change for me was that I learned Greek, the original language of the New Testament. Nothing re-forms your understanding of the bible quite like reading it in its original languages. But while this enriched my personal study of scripture, it simultaneously challenged my public enjoyment of it. See, along with the Greek language I learned of a little, dangerous sounding thing called the “exegetical fallacy.” It is, in short, a logical error that a preacher commits when he takes a Greek word and defines it in a way that is convenient to the point he’s trying to make. It’s unethical, but widely done, and often done not out of malice but genuine ignorance. Many ministers, it turns out, are not very good with the Greek they quote from week to week. Well, now that I was a person who had some idea of what the Greek text said and was about, there followed a natural fall-out in my sermon appreciation.
In itself, however, awareness of the exegetical fallacy is not enough to ruin all sermons for me. Many ministers are careful preachers and never commit the fallacy. Many who do commit the fallacy do it on minor sub-points and can be forgiven on the whole. But the growing awareness that preachers are not always as careful with their research as they ought to be has stayed with me. It awoke in me a critical spirit—not one in a bad or wicked sense, but one that was going to listen more carefully to what was said. That critical spirit (which I encourage in the members of my church) means that we listen carefully to what is said. We ask questions like, “What are the consequences of that thought?” and “Does this square up with what we know about God from other parts of the bible?” And those are questions that I believe every Christian ought to be asking him or herself while listening to sermons.
Still, the awareness that ministers can be unethical in their rhetoric and the awakening of a (positively) critical spirit were not enough to ruin sermons for me. Perhaps, then, the change came as I attended seminary. After all, there’s nothing quite like the seminary experience to ruin the hearts of well-intentioned Christians. And it’s true, in some ways, that the more I learned about God and theology and rhetoric and pastoral work the more I began to feel a measure of angst about the lion’s share of preaching I was hearing. Was this what we ought to be doing in church? What’s the purpose of the twenty to forty minute talk we give once a week to a largely unchanged public?
The other thing about seminary—and perhaps merely a factor of age and experience—is that I had now been exposed to some really great speakers, people with gifts well beyond what I had experienced in my life to date. Was it possible that now, today, I regard the majority of preaching as a ‘high critic’? That I’ve become snobbish in my listening, considering majority of preaching to be the equivalent of ‘fast food’ on which one can survive, but is no supplement or even comparison to a proper restaurant? Had I become a bit of a preaching snob? Perhaps I had.
Looking back, I don’t think that any of these changes are what ruined sermons for me. None of them sit right in my heart. Quite the opposite, as I reflect I find that each of these criteria presents me with valid and enriching ways to evaluate what a sermon is about. I am now a far better sermon listener than ever I was before, and I hope as well that I am a better preacher.
The reason I’ve documented the above reasons for preaching having lost its ‘spark’ is because I suspect that I am not the only minister who struggles to listen to preaching. I suspect, and hope, that others feel as I do, and that others, like me, have explored their life history to try and find the place where the sermon ‘went sour’ for them. Amazingly, it was only in the last weeks that a new realization dawned on me, illuminating my thoughts and reactions to preaching. And this, I believe, is the real reason why I struggle to listen to preaching as a preacher: I struggle to listen to preaching because I myself am called to preach.
It’s so astoundingly simple that I’m amazed I never realized it before. And yet it’s true. When I’m listening to a sermon the main thought these days in my head is “Why am I not up there preaching?” I’m like a racehorse, dancing and skittish in the stalls, waiting my turn to jump into the race. Church is the race for me, and when it comes time to preach I feel the urge to compete, not sit and watch. I listen to points but think to myself, “How would I say that?” I re-structure sermons in my mind while I listen to them. I rephrase points and compose sub-points. Preaching is what I’m supposed to be doing, it is what I am called to do, and when I’m not doing it I feel that something is out of place, I’m missing something. As a result I don’t enjoy listening to preaching.
So perhaps, just maybe, this little essay can help someone else out there who wonders why its do difficult now to listen to preaching as a preacher. Maybe there’s someone else out there like me who feels such a call to the pulpit that being in church triggers, nudges, and enflames the call to the degree that enjoying sermons becomes an impossibility.
Or maybe I’m just crazy.