When people listen to a sermon

French church

A seminary professor once told my class that pastors aren’t fired for heresy anymore, they’re fired for incompetence.

I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant.

Was he saying that people don’t care anymore about heresy? I don’t think he meant to say that. Or that they wouldn’t recognize a heretical statement if they heard one? Maybe that’s closer to the truth, but not a very generous comment about church people.

More likely, though, he was trying to encourage us to be capable pastors.

Sound pastoral work, together with capable administration and a good work ethic, would probably be more important to most church people than flawless theological thinking.

It’s hard to know sometimes what people are listening for when they listen to me. I don’t think many people listen for theological gaffes, though one or two people along the way thought they detected in my preaching some minor deviation from strict Reformed or Calvinist thinking. In those situations, I think I remember feeling grateful for the theological reflection shared over a cup of coffee.

Based on the comments and feedback I get most of the time, I think people seldom, if ever, listen for theology, and I shouldn’t be surprised.

After my very first sermon, preached to a classroom with fellow students, a moment in my life if there ever was one when I needed some solid, constructive feedback, the comment I remember best had to do with the suit I was wearing. My preaching professor obviously didn’t care much for the three-piece brown corduroy ensemble that actually made noise as I strode to the pulpit. In his comments after the sermon, he sarcastically thanked me for my ‘sartorial splendor.’

I am well aware that he had a point. He also inadvertently prepared me for the future.

Comments about my preaching since that first shaky effort in the seminary classroom have mostly been along the same lines – my pronunciation of certain words, the speed at which I speak, the length of my hair, the color of my tie, the beard I brought back from summer vacation, etc. One person disliked the beard so much that he handed me a disposable razor at the door and told me to ‘use it.’

In the last few years, another kind of feedback has emerged. People in the pews use their cell phones in order to be my fact checkers. If I mention a book, a date in history, an author’s name, I will know, in painful detail, what Wikipedia has to say about that fact by the time I am finished greeting people at the door after church.

Last Sunday I mentioned in my sermon that I tend to see God at work in my life when I look in the rear-view mirror. Seeing evidence of God’s guiding hand in my life is always easier that way than seeing it in the present moment. I’m not especially proud of that, I said, but that’s my experience. That’s who I am.

I was hoping a few people would say, ‘I can relate to that. That’s my experience too!’

Interestingly, though by now it shouldn’t be surprising, it was that comment that prompted most of the comments at the door – not my helpful new insights on the doctrine of general revelation. So, conversation quickly veered from the value and limits of God’s revelation in the world around us to the pastor’s spiritual life which, many agreed, could use some help.

It’s an endlessly interesting thing, the pastor’s life. I’ll say this much: I’m never bored. I seldom think anymore about my theological orthodoxy, but I pay careful attention to what I wear. And of course to regular shaving.

(Photo: That’s the French Reformed Church in Zurich where morning worship is held. Our congregation shares the space with a French-speaking congregation. Though I am very nearly fluent in German by now, worship at the International Protestant Church is in English.)

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.

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13 Responses to When people listen to a sermon

  1. Jodi October 3, 2014 at 6:26 am #

    Pastor Doug…there are advantages to mentioning random facts in one’s sermon…for instance, I once made an offhand remark about my favorite chocolate bar. The following Christmas, I received 12 of them from parishioners!
    But you are right….preaching doesn’t get any easier…still, it’s quite a pleasure and privilege to get to do it!

    • Doug October 3, 2014 at 8:09 am #

      Agreed. I’m aware that when people give us their attention for 20-25 minutes on a Sunday morning it’s an extraordinary gift.

  2. Andrea Coffey Stewart October 3, 2014 at 7:02 am #

    My Scripture Reading/Preaching Professor finds it distracting when women play with or fix their hair while preaching and he insists that the majority of women do this. Therefore if you are a woman with anything but super short hair, you have to wear your hair up on days that you are speaking before the class. He calls it Scrunchies for Jesus!

    • Doug October 3, 2014 at 8:08 am #

      We probably remember our preaching professors for the wrong reasons. Am guessing you’ll never forget that one.

  3. eileen kunkle October 3, 2014 at 8:00 am #

    Don’t I seem to remember a comment about brown shoes also??

    • Doug October 3, 2014 at 8:07 am #

      Oh my, what a memory! Yes, if I didn’t have to keep my posts to a reasonable number of words, that would have been a good story to tell. The call came to the church office on Monday morning, letting me know that my brown shoes under a black robe were unacceptable. My first thought was, “Well, your hats are unacceptable.” But thought better of it and bought my first pair of black wingtips. Thanks, Eileen. Good to hear from you.

  4. Bruce October 3, 2014 at 9:21 am #

    Kierkegaard: “Life is lived forward, but understood backwards (or something similar {Wiki where art thou!?!}). I, as you might imagine, find theology the church’s singular reason and purpose … it’s all we got, in essence; caveat emptor

  5. Charles Scouten October 3, 2014 at 11:38 am #

    Doug, why is it that it seems easier to see the hole or curb
    after your stumble has brought you to your knees?

  6. Dorothy Kwan October 4, 2014 at 3:58 am #

    You are lucky that ‘Seeing evidence of God’s guiding hand in my life is always easier that way than seeing it in the present moment.’ I am seeking His guiding hand but not always receive an answer, not quick eniugh though. Maybe I am not listening hard enough.

    • Doug October 4, 2014 at 4:09 am #

      Dorothy, maybe the truth we dare not speak here is that most of us see God only in hindsight. To see God in the present moment – not just occasionally, but all the time – might be more than most of us can handle. I hope that as you look back over your life you will see God’s guiding hand.

      • Dorothy Kwan October 4, 2014 at 4:24 am #

        Yes, I guess you are right. If I would encounter God like the prophets did, I don’t think I can handle it. I did hear real voises talking to me a couple of times though. I need something very concrete from Him now. Sometimes I feel that I am stumbling. I need something or someone to hold on to.

  7. Rev. Andrew Gifford October 5, 2014 at 10:07 am #

    I was once given and good job comment by a church youth to which I asked why and was told, “Pastor Andy, you had a good story, I liked the Bible verse, you quotes some guys I don’t know who are and used some words I don’t know what mean.”