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?