The Common Myths about Preaching by Rev. Robert Hartley
Myths abound in our culture. The field of homiletics is no exception. Everyone who goes to church regularly has benefited from thousands of hours of sermon preparation. But we are also the recipients of a number of common misconceptions that greatly reduce the power of all those hours of Sunday morning preaching. Consider these six myths.
The first myth: sermons are largely irrelevant in today’s world. Many pastors have been heard to say, “I don’t know what I preached on last Sunday. How is anyone else supposed to remember?” The implication is that preaching has little more value than a pep talk. Fortunately, this is not the experience of many people. I have done surveys of sermon recall following dynamic deliveries. Ninety per cent of those in attendance remembered the basic message after one week, and fifty per cent after six weeks. Some people even speak of homilies from years ago that blessed them with exactly what they needed at that time. Clergy and lay people need to know that when parishioners come back week after week, it is because they experience many sermons as vehicles of blessing for personal growth in faith and life.
The second myth is particularly applicable for Anglicans. William Vaughan Jenkins and Heather Kayan published a fascinating piece of homiletic research, “Sermon Responses and Preferences in Pentecostal and Mainline churches, in the Journal of Empirical Theology.
Three conclusions from their research stand out. First, “The data showed that Anglicans desired significant intellectual content…compared to Pentecostal members.” Second, “Participants from both churches responded to sermons in a predominantly emotional way.” Third, members of “both churches wanted to hear sermons on grace and forgiveness” above all other topics. Despite our preference for cognitive material, we clearly judge sermons by their emotional appeal, and prefer homilies on personal faith issues. It is a myth that the sermon must be aimed at people’s heads rather than equally at the mind and the heart.
The third myth grows out of the second. It is that a university education is extremely important in preparing one to be a good preacher. If this is true, how does one harmonize the postgraduate education of Anglican priests with the poor quality of the average Anglican sermon? A survey of 20 randomly chosen Anglican sermons from Nova Scotia to British Columbia produced the lowest ratings of any group studied. Apparently the worst preaching in Canada comes from our pulpits!
If the myth were correct, we would be among the best, not the poorest, preachers.
It should also be pointed out that some of the most powerful and moving sermons I have assessed were offered by Anglican priests. The homilies one often hears in our churches tend to have lifeless introductions, poor illustrations and very weak applications. Think about it…if you don’t have a strong and measurable application, what is the point of preaching?
Clergy will recognize the next myth, which says that God’s truth is more important than appeal techniques. Of course, this is true to a degree. But if the presentation puts one to sleep, God’s truth gets lost. On a number of occasions, while acting as a guest preacher, I have been stopped at the door after the service to hear something like, “You ruined my Sunday morning!” When asked why, the answer is, “I didn’t get my usual nap during the sermon time.”
People want to be wakened, as it were, with a message that is quickly grasped, contains some humour, and touches them in a direct and relevant way.
The fifth myth is that clergy believe their friends are excellent judges concerning the effectiveness of their sermons. It is a well-documented fact that when someone cares for the preacher, they tend to overlook any weaknesses. The lack of helpful feedback means that, over time, the preacher settles comfortably into imperfections, until these become second nature and difficult to correct.
The final myth is that sermons are generally too long. After all, it is believed, the average person is able to concentrate only for the length of time between television advertisements. (On the CBC news broadcasts, ads average every 10 minutes.) This myth is true only when the listeners are not being fed with stimulating, challenging material.
A priest in one of my homiletic programs decided to extend his sermon from 12 to 18 minutes, using the extra time to present more mature material. He took this step trembling and in fear, as he expected very negative reactions. At the church door, he was wonderfully overcome by the many compliments and requests for more similar sermons.
I have recently listened to at least a dozen 45-minute sermons in other denominations and observed that the listeners’ attention was held right to the end.
These six myths are robbing both clergy and parishioners of the blessings of the average Anglican homily. It has been said that the sermon is a reflection of the life of both the listener and the preacher. Each is challenged to respond in some way by the message and the medium.
When the myths are set aside, preaching becomes a more powerful tool for God’s truth and an inspiration for personal growth. Clergy may be confident that God will use their homilies to inspire people when they speak to both the head and the heart with an appealing and relevant application. Those who sit in the pews are challenged to reflect on what God is saying through the particular message of the moment and then to respond meaningfully.
Look at the next sermon you are involved in with a new understanding and it will open you to more of God’s blessings.
Bob Hartley is a retired Anglican priest whose hobby is researching homiletics and teaching powerful preaching to small groups of clergy.