By Steve Webb

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Are church sermons a good thing or a bad thing? For much of my early life they were a bad thing. Growing up in an ultra-conservative (many would say legalistic) church where we met, without fail, three times a week, and were subjected to lengthy sermons at least twice (we never missed these services, short of coming down with a brain tumor or something worse). I thus became an early expert on sermons. The problem I had was two-fold: the first being that as I sat there in the pew, my mind was absorbed in things that were much more interesting than the endless droning from the pulpit — girls, sports, school, fanciful dreams, spiders crawling on the floor, you name it, my mind raced in many directions. The second was that by the age of fifteen or so, I realized I was hearing the same stuff over and over. For many of the sermons, with but a few notes to keep me on track, and a shot of self-confidence, I could have taken over midway and finished them myself. In looking back, I sometimes stand in amazement and confusion that men who were paid to do this for a living could have had such little aptitude for doing what they were doing. For some of these men it could truly be said that each sermon was better than their next. But times were different then and seminary education was not what it is today. I suspect I judge too harshly.

In fact, I would use the above as an indictment mostly on myself, but at the same time, I recognized very early on that I was not alone in my attitudes. On occasion I would sneak a peek back at the adults filling the pews (us teenagers sat near the front) and their faces told a pretty clear story. Most were dull and expressionless, many looked tired, while others appeared to be propped-up corpses. Seldom did I see someone who was bright and alert, and keenly interested in what was being said. I had an uncle who would frequently begin audibly snoring during church and had to be jabbed in the ribs to stop. On one occasion, right in the middle of a sermon, something in his deep slumber triggered him to suddenly stand straight up, albeit with eyes still closed. He just stood there, slightly swaying back and forth, while we teenagers excitedly wondered what his next move was going to be. Suddenly his eyes snapped open and in a flash he jammed himself back down in the pew. If he had been quicker thinking, I guess he could have raised his hands over his head and stood there saying, "Glory to God," but then he would have been accused of having the Holy Spirit. Having the Holy Spirit, back then, was not considered a good thing except in the strictest of biblical senses. Other than that, it meant you belonged to those sadly deluded "Holy Rollers," people who, in the words of Martin Luther, "had swallowed the Holy Spirit, feathers and all." I heard it said, seriously, by a man in a sister church that, "We've never had the Holy Spirit here, and we are not going to start now."

More curious than the absence of the Holy Spirit was the fact that we also seemed to be mostly missing Jesus. It was quite acceptable, in fact admirable, to speak his name while reading Scripture or ending a prayer with his name, but this is pretty much as far as it got. Sermons were almost never about Jesus. Instead they were typically about condemning sin. There were lots of sins to condemn but drinking alcohol and dancing were always high on the list. In contrast to the name of Jesus, it was more acceptable to mention the name of God so long as it was in an appropriately reverent context, but the name of Jesus almost never made it into routine conversation. This attitude extended itself well outside the church such that if you were to even use the name Jesus in everyday conversation, people would have rolled their eyes and wondered about you. Saying "Jesus" was getting altogether too holy for your own good.

By the time of my college years I had had it with sermonizing. I was firmly convinced at that point that nothing new was going to be said from the pulpit, let alone something new that would actually be interesting and applicable to my life. Despite this, I loved God. And Jesus' words were so powerful they would often bring tears to my eyes. My faith had somehow survived the sermonizing. I just inwardly knew God was there and that he represented the ultimate thing of importance in my life.

Fast forwarding many years, my job has kept me on the move from place to place, never having lived in one town (or sometimes country) in my adult years longer than five years. It has given me the opportunity to catch up on sermons in a lot of different places, churches, and denominations. Over the years, the tenor of sermons has changed a great deal, and definitely for the better as far as content and ability to hold an audiences' attention, but I still struggle. What I tend to hear now are sermons on practical living: money, marriage, family, pride, honesty, etc. They sometimes have a lot of good meat to them and I have greatly benefited from time to time. But overall, I put most of them in the category of a Dummies Guide to Doing What You Already Know You Should Be Doing. Granted, being reminded and encouraged about things that you already know, is overall a good thing, but too often I sit in the pew, harking back to my teenage years with my mind wandering far away. I can't help but wonder if there is not a better way of doing things. And I say this with the admission that I have given quite a few sermons myself (including one in front of 2000 people when I was only 23 years old).

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Image Credits
Matthew Paulson; "From the Pulpit"; Creative Commons
Bethany Khan; "handprint on pulpit"; Creative Commons

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Published 10-17-16