The sermon in Christianity

As long time readers know, I used to be a lay preacher in the Methodist Church in Sri Lanka. What is meant by ‘lay’ is that I was not a fully ordained minister for which one has to go to divinity school and get a degree. Instead I took some courses and exams while continuing my secular life. I did this between the ages of 20 and 25 until I left for the US to start graduate school in physics.

My duties as a lay preacher was that about once a month, I was assigned by the circuit superintendent to go to a church in the region and conduct Sunday services in place of their regular minister. I had to do the full service but not the communion part which could only be done by a fully ordained minister. In the Methodist Church, unlike the Catholic or Anglican churches, full communion services were held only once a month so that restriction was not a problem.

I had to do the entire service by myself, with the local organist accompanying the hymns. In planning for such services, I had to select the hymns, write the prayers, and deliver the sermon. I tried to find a unifying theme, at least loosely, for all of the items but the most difficult part was writing the sermon. In the Methodist Church, the sermon is the focus, coming at the end of the service and people expected to hear a good one. Some preachers, full and lay, would be able to deliver stemwinders. My style was more low-key and cerebral. Depending on the speaker, the sermon could last from 15 to 30 minutes or even longer. I would make sure to not go on for more that 20 minutes, thinking that was about as long as people could take.

A recent survey looked at the sermons in US churches.

The median sermon examined in the first survey was thirty-seven minutes long; Catholic homilies were the shortest, with a median of fourteen minutes. Not even that brevity satisfies Pope Francis, who recently advised clergy members to keep their sermons short: “A homily, generally, should not go beyond ten minutes, because after eight minutes you lose people’s attention… By contrast, Pew found that the sermons at historically Black churches were the longest, at more than three times that length, with a median of fifty-four minutes. These sermons had only a few hundred more words than those from within the evangelical tradition, a detail that suggests oratorical style or musical interludes might be contributing to their length.

But they are listening: when surveyed by Gallup, a full seventy-five per cent of respondents indicated that, of all the offerings from their places of worship, they cared most about sermons, preferring those which taught scripture and were relevant to their lives. That’s somewhat surprising, since many devout Christians can summon only a handful of sermons that they have found memorable or meaningful, even though a faithful parishioner might hear a few thousand in a lifetime.

One might wonder why anyone would listen to a callow youth like me in his early twenties preaching to them. I wondered too. But I put in a lot of preparation into the sermons with my emphasis being on the social justice implications of religion. Other preachers might choose to focus on the care of the soul and go the hellfire-and-damnation route but not only was I not particularly drawn to those aspects of religion, it seemed a bit presumptuous for me to lecture much older people on sin. So I would pick passages from the Bible that spoke about how we should better treat one another, to shift the emphasis away from thinking of heaven and more on how to create the kingdom of god on Earth. My sermons tended to be intellectual arguments rather than appeals to the emotions, drawing upon both biblical and secular sources.

It is not easy to write a good sermon. The main difficulty is settling on the central idea. Sometimes the main idea would be triggered by the season or a passage or story in the Bible and for others the source would come from something in the secular world and I would work in a biblical connection. Although it was unavoidable that one’s own views would be part of the sermon, one had to be careful that one was not entirely pursuing one’s own agenda, and just picking and choosing from the Bible to support that view. However I never, ever felt that I had been seized by the Holy Spirit and that God was ‘speaking through me’, the way that some fundamentalist preachers claim happens when they start preaching.

Fortunately, I only had to create a sermon once a month or so, unlike regular ministers who had to come up with a new one every week. It is not surprising that they tend to freely borrow from other people’s sermons. Since I was also an itinerant preacher going to a different location each time, I could, if I wanted to, reuse my own sermons since I did not have groupies following me from church to church like I was a member of the Grateful Dead. But I tried to avoid that temptation.

All this is a preamble as to why I found the early experience of Reinhold Niebuhr, later to become a famous theologian whose works I studied, resonating with me.

“Now that I have preached about a dozen sermons I find I am repeating myself,” a young minister wrote despairingly in his diary in 1915. He was barely out of school and only a few months into his first call, at Bethel Evangelical Church in Detroit. “The few ideas that I had worked into sermons at the seminary have all been used, and now what?” It would be fourteen years before anyone else read those words, published under the title “Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic.” It would take even longer for their author, Reinhold Niebuhr, to become one of the best-known theologians in the country, famous for works such as “The Irony of American History” and “The Nature and Destiny of Man.”

Niebuhr was twenty-three when he was assigned to Bethel, and so timid that he often walked past the houses of parishioners a few times before he worked up enough courage to knock. “There is something ludicrous about a callow young fool like myself standing up to preach a sermon to these good folks,” he wrote in his diary. “I talk wisely about life and know little about life’s problems. I tell them of the need of sacrifice, although most of them could tell me something about what that really means.”

I too could never quite shake the feeling that Niebuhr describes of being a hypocrite, acting as if one has wisdom to offer to much older people even though one has had very little experience of life. But there is something about being conferred institutional credibility that can help suppress those feelings of doubt. The church had authorized me to be the one who could step into the pulpit and deliver the sermon and that single fact seemed to endow me with a gravitas well beyond my years that the congregation seemed to respect.

At least I think that they respected it. No one ever stormed out of the service or yelled or threw things at me, or even complained to the superintendent of the circuit.


  1. aquietvoice says

    1) Thanks for the lovely story! Hearing about other people’s life experiences is just so good, to me it really is the foundation of understanding humanity. Plus, the bit about trying to keep your own opinions out and make sure people got what they wanted sits very well with my notion of goodness.

    2) I’d never heard the expression ‘stemwinder’ before, neat.

    3) So that is how sermons are prepared! (or at least one way of doing it)
    I haven’t heard many so I never really gave thought to how they were made, thank you again for the telling.

    You know what, maybe I should look up some sermons from random religions and such. Might have to slog through hyper-political guff to get there though…..

  2. says

    I’d be interested in hearing a bit about how you deconverted. Naturally, I assumed you were born a physicist and had never dallied with imaginary metaphysics.

    Sermons are just inefficient social media. Nowadays, Joe Rogan’s sermons have better reach.

  3. steve oberski says

    Social media in the 1850s.

    From the Autobiography of Mark Twain (page 212):

    In my schoolboy days I had no aversion to slavery. I was not aware that there was anything wrong about it. No one arraigned it in my hearing; the local papers said nothing against it; the local pulpit taught us that God approved it, that it was a holy thing, and that the doubter need only look in the Bible if he wished to settle his mind – and then the texts were read aloud to us to make the matter sure; if the slaves themselves had an aversion to slavery they were wise and said nothing.

  4. DrVanNostrand says

    As someone who was raised catholic, I can confirm that one of the very few redeeming qualities of catholic mass was that it was short. 45 minutes, or even shorter if there was a Packer game at noon. Where I’ll disagree with the Pope is that my attention span for a sermon was much less than 8 minutes. My mind started wandering more or less immediately.

  5. Jazzlet says

    Both of my grandfathers were fully ordained Methodist ministers, and my father a lay preacher for over seventy years (!). Several of the many theological books we disposed of after my father moved into residential care were books of sermons. I know my father wrote his own sermons, so the books must have belonged to one or both of the grandfathers. And one of them clearly did repeat his sermons, there was also a note book with a record of what he had preached where, covering years and several different circuits, as they were active in the days that Methodist ministers were moved on every four years so as to not develop favourites in the congregation and to serve all with equal love. Or at least that was what I was told.

  6. Ice Swimmer says

    This was very much new info for me, as Methodists are rather less well-known here in Finland (this place is mostly Lutheran), especially among Finnish-speakers (some Anglo-American protestant sects, AFAIK Baptists and Methodists, are more widespread among the Swedish-speaking minority).

    I’m concurring with Marcus, I’d also be interested in hearing about your de-conversion. Mine was an ovenight one at 11 years old.

    Looking at and copying old sermons must have been a time-honoured practice. I read this book about the arrival of books and literate culture in Finland in the Middle Ages (pre-reformation) and in it it was stated that after the Catholic parish had acquired the mandatory Missale (mass book), Manuale (manual on other sacraments), Breviarium (the book of prayers at canonical hours) and Graduale (song book for the mass, only if there were multiple priests in the parish), a collection of sermons was a common thing to get, if the parish was able to afford one.

  7. Deepak Shetty says

    I used to be a lay preacher

    The juvenile in me cant stop giggling.

    I think the good preachers that i have listened to have managed to use whatever is the current topic and frame it in context of their religion. The bad ones can usually be summarized as one of “Youll are all sinners” or “give me money”

  8. jrkrideau says

    I knew a former Catholic priest who had done social research for the Vatican. He said that some survey work he had one back in the 1970′ suggested that roughly a 20 minute sermon was about right. Less and the parishioners felt shortchanged, more and they thought it was too much.

  9. lochaber says

    oh wow, I also didn’t realize you were previously religious, let alone a lay preacher. Guess I haven’t been reading this blog quite long enough… 🙂

    I was raised Catholic, and I could have sworn our Sunday Mass was about an hour long.

    Even before I started questioning/doubting, I absolutely abhorred going to church. It was so damned long and boring…

  10. robert79 says

    I’ve never listened to a sermon but wouldn’t a good sermon be just like giving a good all-public lecture? or a TED-talk? (Note: I’m not equating these…) Do you think your experience giving sermons give you some preparation in lecturing?

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