Mike and I both tend to be too intellectual in our sermons. Yesterday we had an experience that shows why this can be a problem:
Mike is learning guitar. Since I’ve played for a while, there have been a couple times when I’ve showed him new things on the guitar. While showing Mike chords yesterday, I decided to switch and show him harmonics. He had not asked any questions which would have brought up the subject. As a beginner (though quickly learning) guitarist, he’s not at a point where harmonics are likely to be used in any songs he’s learning. But I think harmonics are cool, so I wanted to show him harmonics. I’ve been playing guitar for fourteen years. Mike has been playing for a few weeks. I’m fascinated by things like harmonics. Mike isn’t. He wanted to learn how to move more quickly from a G chord to a C chord.
How often do preachers do exactly the same thing? We get really excited about showing our congregation harmonics – whatever historical or linguistic or theological nuggets of information capture our attention – when all the while the people present are more concerned with moving from one chord to another.
Part of the problem is pride. We toss in “In the Greek it says . . .”, when we really could convey the same point without boasting of our education. It’s not that we shouldn’t teach things of substance – we certainly should. We just have to teach in a way that communicates to the people listening. The Upper Room is an intelligent congregation, but most folks there could care less whether my sermons have footnotes. More mild than boasting but equally prideful, we can also easily choose the self-centered topics. As I showed Mike harmonics because I like them, so also I’m sure I’ve preached on some issues because I felt like it, not because it was appropriate for where the congregation was at that point.
Another issue is seminary education: Removed from the non-Christian world, students get used to pleasing professors who are often more concerned with the finer points of theology or language than communication to a non-seminary (or non-Christian) audience. The product is preachers who can expound on Greek and footnote the theologians they’re referencing, but have little skill in connecting to the everyday world of their congregations. I’ve played guitar for fourteen years. But that doesn’t mean I should have showed Mike something I learned a few years into playing guitar when he’s a few weeks into it.
So there’s the diagnosis. But what’s the remedy? Perhaps an accurate assessment of the congregation’s level of discipleship is a good place to start. Are you preaching to longtime Christians or people new to faith? Is their discipleship deep or shallow? More importantly, though, the basic skills of communication have to be built. I’m starting to read more fiction and poetry, as well as more non-churchy non-fiction, so that I get used to communicating more through story and image. What other options might there be?