Preaching: The Good, the Bad, and the Indifferent

By Paul Koch

“But is it terrible everywhere?” My wife asked, interrupting me in the midst of my (almost weekly) tirade about the state of preaching in the church. Now that is a good question. Is preaching really all that poor in the churches or has that only been my experience? Or am I just too damn picky and overly critical of what I hear? While many may think that because I am a preacher I have more of a right than most to critique preaching, the truth is I don’t get out that often to hear preaching. As a friend in Georgia used to remind me, I live in a strange little Lutheran bubble.

Only a handful of times in a given year I am subjected to a sermon. I have a monthly gathering with my circuit brothers, the yearly pastor’s conference, the preaching at the seminary’s symposia each year, and the one or two times I’m out of town for vacation.  Now of course, I can add to that the sermons members and friends send me to listen to from time to time, and my own searches throughout cyberspace to find good preaching to help me better my craft. I guess, that is not as few sermons as I thought. But it is still a pretty poor sampling, at least when I make sweeping statements about the quality of preaching today.

For years I was afraid of sounding like just another blowhard jackass who takes pot shots at the preaching foibles of others. So I just kept my thoughts to myself (and my poor wife). Besides, preaching certainly couldn’t be all that bad. Perhaps because it is the heart of my own vocation I’m just too sensitive. Maybe I need not worry about what others are doing in their congregations. What I need to do is take a deep breath and step away from the ledge. After all, it can’t be terrible everywhere.

So I went out with my buddy Tim for tacos and beer as is our Tuesday afternoon ritual. We began a discussion that flowed from my wife’s question. Am I overly critical of preaching? Is it far better than I suppose out there, or am I just an asshole? After he had a lengthy rant about what body part I resemble most, Tim offered the suggestion that while the sample selection may be small it certainly wasn’t overly critical. After all if there is anything worth being critical about, it is the task of preaching. Our discussion led us to highlight two points that are most helpful in understanding our increasing worry about the state of preaching today. They are quite simply a defined understanding of proclamation and a shocking amount of silence.

To start, a major part of my discomfort and disappointment with the sermons I hear is that I have a very narrowly defined understanding of proclamation. Now my definition is open to be challenged and influenced, but I have found that it becomes the central thing by which I judge a sermon. By proclamation I mean the specific declaration of the good news: the first order speech act of “I forgive you.” It is the leaving behind of talking about God and His Christ and actually doing the killing and making alive that God has sent us to do. Though I love good rhetoric, and I appreciate illustrative prose and clever turns of phrase, it is not necessarily proclamation. As Tim remarked over tacos, “A sermon can and probably should be a lot of things; teaching and ethical instruction, even humor and inspiration, but it damn well better get to the point that it hands over the goods.”

luther preaching

So a sermon is good if it actually does the task of proclamation and a bad sermon simply doesn’t. No matter how cleverly it was written, no matter how passionately it was preached, if a sermon fails to hand over the goods to the hearer then it simply fails.

The second point is far more worrisome. It should cause both pastor and layperson to be concerned. There is a haunting silence about this whole topic in our churches. I suppose, to put the best construction on it, proclamation is simply assumed so it is never talked about. You could graduate from the seminary, be ordained, and complete a full career without ever engaging the topic of proclamation in any sort of open discussion. No one is raising the red flag about the lack of proclamation. No one is challenging the preachers. Everyone is just silent. All we ever hear are disagreements on style, debates on rhetorical tricks, or complaints on worship forms. We never address the content of what is being preached. Proclamation is simply assumed. And you know what they say about assumptions.

It’s time to end the silence. It’s time to engage in the discussion. Preaching may be a lot of things, but for the love of God let it finally get around to proclamation!