The Famine of Decent Preaching

On my shelf are numerous books on preaching, from Willimon’s Conversations with Barth to Lowry’s The Sermon: Dancing the Edge of Mystery, and lots of books in between.  It’s probably safe to say that after nearly 30 years as a Senior Pastor, I have invested more of my life in this discipline than any other.  Wisdom from other preachers is always appreciated, and of these books, few have impacted my thinking more than a little book by Barbara Brown Taylor entitled, When God is Silent.

The book was a result of lectures on preaching she delivered to Yale Divinity School nearly fifteen years ago.  It was given to diverse group, yet all having this conviction in common—that the voice of a preacher is sanctioned in a way that other speech is not.  In her work, she describes the current homiletical landscape as a “swampland of mediocrity.” As she puts it, nourishing words are hard to find.  Most of the words offered have been chewed so many times there are no nutrients left in them.

Preachers have this mandate to nourish the church.  They must come to grips with this high calling to feed, as well as break the silence. And just before they do, a myriad of questions will pass through their brain—Have I done my homework? Will my body cooperate?  Will I be more eloquent than the silence itself? Have I employed the best words I can find? It is this last question that Taylor gives particular attention.  It is an important question, for Twitter and Emails and Facebook have done great damage to language.  Words, to use Taylor’s language, have become transitory and cheap.  The world is glutted with them. One of the reasons I have been deeply impressed by the writings of Eugene Peterson, and others like Taylor, is that they are wordsmiths who carefully craft their ideas with precision.  There is an obvious meticulousness to the words chosen.

But we can become sloppy with our words.  The pulpit can be a dangerous place, where words are used with “chemical additives” to mask the empty calories.  Worse, they can be words with hidden razor blades in them—words intended to wound and hurt.  This past weekend, our church was graced to welcome Pam Mark Hall, a singer who once worked with John Fisher and Amy Grant, and who has won Grammy and Dove awards.  Her music impacted me in the 70’s, but she disappeared for a number of years, in part because of the wounds of words in the church, some of which likely came from the pulpit.

Taylor’s fear is that we are finding ourselves in a famine of sort.  Amos warned Israel that one of God’s severest judgments is to send a famine, not of bread or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord.  And maybe we are experiencing this. Part of it goes back to poor training.  For all too many pastors, courses in homiletics can be long on stories and short on training.  My homiletic notes were lost (by the professor!) shortly after seminary, and I confess I have never missed them.  To me, they were as relevant as instructions for growing tropical plants in Iceland.

Part of the famine is explained by our failure to enter the quiet. Too many of those called to preach are not stopping to listen (part of what Taylor calls “auditory chastity”).  Preachers are simply dipping their cups into the noisy torrent of the world and serving it up with a little “theological parsley” on top.  And part of the famine is due to the level of receptivity on the part of the congregants.  Too many of those called to hear are not up to an encounter with Word.  They would rather be warmed than burned, have ears tickled than hearts challenged.

What are we to do?  Start listening.  Focus on treating language with greater respect.  And ironically, create a hunger.  Our responsibility as preachers, in a time of famine, is to not to end the shortage.  Taylor’s challenge to us is to intensify it until the whole world bangs its forks for God’s food.  “If people go away from us full, then we have done them a disservice.  What we serve is not supposed to satisfy.  It is food for the journey.  It is meant to tantalize, to send people out our doors with a taste for what they cannot find in our kitchens.” And then woo them back.

About John Johnson

John Johnson is the former lead pastor at Village Church in Portland, OR. Presently, he is Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at Western Seminary and devoted to writing.

2 thoughts on “The Famine of Decent Preaching

  1. John, thank you for this relevant, encouraging piece of writing! In famine-ravaged lands, people walk for miles and days to get food–I so want to be a preacher that is worth getting out of bed on Sunday morning to hear!
    I’ve lately been struck in the differences between myself and my church members over what makes for a decent sermon. They do not note technical proficiency, balance of points, breadth of knowledge shared, etc., as the marks of a decent sermon: almost to a person, they feel a good sermon is one in which they experience God’s power as they hear it, and can remember its main, singular, point/thrust/argument, etc., in the future when they think of it. And neither of those criteria are things I can control or guarantee. What is a “decent” sermon by your estimation?
    Thank you!

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