More than Good Theology – Part One

Emilie Bouvier, "Fertile Soil." (Split Rock Lighthouse State Park; Two Harbors, MN)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

“Sermons in Lutheran churches don’t speak to my children. They’re going elsewhere.

A life-long Lutheran with four adult-aged children said this to me recently. Only one of his children belongs to a Lutheran congregation. The rest have left, and the preaching they heard was the major factor in their leaving. What’s going on here? Is it a coincidence in just a few congregations? Is it uniquely Lutheran? Or is it a more widespread problem?

I don’t know the answer to those questions, but I take them very seriously. What are we preachers trying to do in the pulpit? Are we doing it well?

A Unique and Difficult Task

Preaching is not easy, but it never has been. Sermons are unique forms of oral communication, different from any other kind of speech. No form of speech is so multi-purposed, has such high expectations and so many expectations as Christian preaching.

Traditionally, we devote most of our attention to the theological issues surrounding preaching–and those issues are as vitally important now as ever. However, I visit many churches and listen to a lot of preaching, from many denominations, and I know from being in the pews that there is far, far more to good preaching than good theology.

Several years ago I led a workshop entitled “Why Are People Bored with Good Preaching?” The session was scheduled for a classroom, but the turnout was so great that we had to move to the auditorium. Had I struck a sensitive nerve? How many persons came because they were preaching what they thought were good sermons, but the preaching didn’t seem to be very effective?

There is a desperate pathos here. The Bible tells us that “faith comes through what is heard” (Romans 10:17). Congregations want good preaching. Pastors want to preach well. Given all that, why isn’t today’s preaching more effective?

Theology and Rhetoric

Good preaching is a combination of good theology and good rhetoric. Skimp on either side and the sermon won’t work. “Rhetoric” is the art of oral communication and skill of public speaking. In our seminaries we have historically devoted vastly more attention to theological topics than rhetorical matters. I recall in my own homiletics classes we spent most of our discussion time analyzing the law/gospel presentation in the sermon. It didn’t make much difference what the text actually said, as long as we got the law/gospel dynamic reasonably well balanced. I look back on my sermons from that time and am appalled how contrived they were–theologically correct, but overly analytical, wooden, and barely related to the text itself. I have no doubt they were also badly delivered; at least we paid hardly any attention to delivery. In a word, had these ghastly pieces been preached to a Sunday congregation they would have been judged–you guessed it–boring. The listeners would have been correct in their judgment.