By Paul Koch –
Awhile back, I wrote about my discovery of what I consider the greatest sacred cow of the church today. It is that one thing that we are not to discuss; the one thing that we just leave alone and allow it to graze on the green fields of the congregation without any fear of ever becoming hamburger. While we can talk about worship styles and evangelism efforts and mission opportunities, while we are invited to debate stewardship ideas and strategic church planning models, we are never to talk about the actual sermons that are being preached.
The sacred cow of the actual preached words remains off-limits.
Let me be clear; we can talk about what should be preached, or even how a preacher might sharpen his craft. Yet, we are not to critique the words being spoken on a given Sunday, at least not in any negative way. We can say, “Good sermon, pastor” on the way out of the church. We can say, “He’s a great preacher” or “I loved last week’s sermon.” But never can we say, “That was a lousy sermon” or, even worse, “He’s a terrible preacher” (even if he is). If parishioners say something along these lines, they are considered bitter or arrogant. If other pastors say utters such things, they are unprofessional. We can be critical of just about anything in the church; but the sermon is unassailable.
I remember a homiletics class at the Seminary where every stage of sermon preparation was dissected in great detail. I sat one-on-one with the professor to discuss my outline and had to defend why I was making the rhetorical moves I did. I had to meet him, again, with a full manuscript where he read it out loud, while I squirmed in a chair. He asked about my transitions, metaphors, and law/gospel distinctions. Finally I had to preach the sermon in a congregation and have it video recorded. Then we met one last time to watch the video of me preaching this sermon, while the professor challenged my delivery. This was brutal; it was exposing and embarrassing.
But, thank God I went through it: for I am a better preacher because of it! But, could you imagine putting a pastor through that sort of rigorous examination after he left the seminary?
The issue here is how are we, who are called to be preachers, supposed to become better at our craft if we are never challenged or critiqued in any way? If conversations among pastors deal only with church structure, programs and counseling issues and not with our actual preaching, aren’t we missing something? As the proverb puts it, “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” I think we need to find a way to encourage open critique of our proclamation; Not done to slander a brother but to build up one another for the sake of our hearers.
No more sacred cows! They’re not good for the church; they’re not good for our faith, because they sure as hell aren’t good for the quality of preaching.