What is a Sermon Anyway?
A friend of mine recently encouraged me to start including some of my teaching in the blog. And some of you have asked for more content on some of our special sessions. So in an effort to give y’all a little entry into the classroom, I’ll start with the question of what is a sermon.
Here’s the story.
It was Wednesday morning in late February during our weekly chapel service. Often the faculty preaches these services. But this Wednesday, one of the students was preaching. After the student sermons, we have a practice of giving feedback and constructive criticism. This particular sermon felt to many on the faculty a little more like an address, and less like a sermon. One of the professors said as much. This sparked a very lively conversation around what actually constitutes a sermon.
What is a sermon anyway? What differentiates a sermon from an address? …from a lecture? …from a motivational speech?
This is a growing concern across continents that preaching is becoming nothing more than an inspirational talk. But what’s wrong with a motivational talk? And how does one know the difference?
The truth is there isn’t anything wrong with motivational speeches. They can make a real difference in lifting people up and helping people. A sermon should be motivational. But if that’s all that sermon is, it’s missing the point.
After this lively discussion (debate?), I decided that the onus was on me as the Homiletics (preaching) teacher to bring some clarity to the subject on behalf of the University. So I spent a few days discerning what a sermon actually is and what it must contain in order to truly be a Christian proclamation of the Good News.
After coming up with a list, I sought council from the BWST (Bishop Wenner School of Theology) Dean and leading professors. Once they signed off on it, I presented it as a lecture to my preaching students.
I came up with three basic attributes that separate a sermon from any other kind of address.
A sermon proclaims the Good News. That is, it must be Christ-centered. If it doesn’t point toward Christ, then it’s not really a sermon. That is not to say that a sermon must be on the subject of Jesus and only Jesus. You can talk about a whole range of things. You can even preach a sermon without saying Jesus’ name. But if it doesn’t ultimately call people back to Christ, if it doesn’t ultimately proclaim life in Jesus’ name, then it’s not a sermon.
A sermon is scripture-derived and scripture-focused. If there is no interpretation of scripture, if it is not standing on a foundation of scripture, then it’s just a person talking. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s not a sermon. As a preacher, once I start preaching my own ideas…even if they’re good ones…divorced from the Bible, then I’ve lost my authority. I become a Christian talking. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that. But preaching is fundamentally different than that. And this is the juice. The way I understand preaching is that it’s the scripture that speaks. The preacher is just the vessel, set in a particular community, personality, and context, through which the scriptures speak. And that is a holy mystery about which I will never lose my wonder and gratitude. It’s the reason you don’t mess around with the pulpit. It’s the reason that there is a special punishment in God’s Kingdom for people who abuse it.
A sermon aims to transform. A sermon is not just information. Its aim is to bring people closer to Christ for their transformation.
And that, my friends, is it. Just three guidelines to talk about one of the holiest and most powerful acts in human existence. Seems pretty straight-forward. But dig in a little, and you’ll find more there than you could preach in a lifetime.
Dang, y’all. I want to preach now.