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.