Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Preaching, Great and "Dreadful"

Last night, as I sat on my front porch reading, there were a few times when I laughed out loud. My wife, also with a book and sitting nearby, wanted to know what was so funny. I told her.

I was reading selections from the published diaries of Deitrich Bonhoeffer, the German Protestant theologian who was martyred by the Nazis during the last days of the Third Reich.

Bonhoeffer spent a few weeks during the summer of 1939 in the United States, most of it in Manhattan. And he visited a lot of churches, sometimes two on one Sunday. He’d attend one church in the morning. Then, he’d go to evening services somewhere else.

One morning, he attended the illustrious Riverside Church. I don’t know if Harry Emerson Fosdick was preaching there at the time. Anyway, Bonhoeffer’s response to the sermon included the word “Dreadful.” I laughed at that point because sometimes that’s exactly what we think. But how often do we say or write it?

Not only that, Bonhoeffer mentions some of the things that put him off about the sermon. Too much interest in easy, simple application. Too much psychology, not enough theology. Forced interpretation, all designed to make things turn out the way we want them to, something that he rightly identifies as “idolatry.”

That evening, Bonhoeffer attended a much more conservative Presbyterian church where the preaching was evidently much more straightforward, robust, unabashed, what’s the right word? It had the effect of lifting his spirits, restoring some of his confidence in American theology and church life.

Reading that made me wonder about preaching, about the things that differentiate the good from the “dreadful” sermons. What do you think?

What is it that bugs you about some of the preaching you’ve heard? What characterizes the great preaching you’ve heard?


Motkue said...

I have always thought that a good sermon is one where the minister very seldom uses the pronouns "I" and "me." We tend to forget sometimes that God and his word are all about love and someimes we get so caught up in legalistic "issues" that we forget about "love," "grace," and "salvation." Great preaching, I think, helps one get to the core of his or her understanding of salvation and what one needs to do to be saved. All of the other things, regardless of how important they are, are noise (as defined by communications text). and will really block that desire for someone in the body to get stronger and for someone outside the body to want in.
Peace Y'all

Stoned-Campbell Disciple said...

Thank you for the report from Bonhoeffer. I have probably preached a few "dreadful" sermons!

I agree with him on the application stuff. I have been moving in the direction of less "obvious" and "simplistic" application. I feel a good sermon simply invites us as travelers into God's own narrative to be molded and shaped by kingdom values. Application of the narrative may vary with the different life situations we encounter but if I am shaped by a cruciform ethic then I will be acting "christianly". And that is the goal as I see it.

Thanks for coming by my Stoned-Campbell blog. I hope you will come back by and join the conversation.

Bobby Valentine
Milwaukee, WI

Leland & Jackie said...

The Church (and sermons) should bring God into the depths of our lives. As C. S. Lewis said, the goal is to make us "little Christs." Great preaching communicates Scripture in such a way as to make us aware of the living author (contemplating the Spirit) and to make us aware of where we are at that point in time (Larry Crabb calls this our Red Dot; like the dot on the directory map at the mall that says, "You are here").

Not to be too picky, I think it is much more important to ingest what has already been done to provide our salvation than to understand "what one needs to do to be saved."