What to do when the minister discovers that churchgoers remember little more than the sermon illustrations

A pastor who grew weary of the usual Sunday morning “That was a good sermon” comments determined to find out just how effective all his “good” sermons were. He began to ask his people questions, such as which part of the sermon they particularly found helpful, or which part they remembered best. He was horrified to discover that the majority could remember nothing at all except a few incidental illustrations!

His problem is the problem of every preacher of the Gospel. We are all acutely aware of the difficulty of effective communication, a difficulty that is by no means a modern one. Paul noted that he had been sent to preach, but “not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect” (1 Cor. 1:17).

And here we find a clue to the perennial problem of communication. It is quite possible, as Paul says, that the chasm between the pulpit and the pew has been created by the words of the preacher rather than the hardness or blindness of the congregation. Reflecting upon some of the sermons that I have heard and read and preached, I find this to be not only a possibility but an actuality. In many ways the modern preacher is tempted to rely upon the wisdom of his words, only to find that such wise words become foolish and of no effect upon his hearers.

There are, first, the overly elegant. A good figure of speech, like a sharpened spade, can enable the user to dig deeper and faster. But it can be overdone. I have a copy of a sermon that I heard delivered to a group of ministers. In it there are such phrases as “asbestine, fear-filled negativists”; “history’s epileptic time clock”; and “hanging by a neurotic, emotional thread.” The entire message was peppered with similar elegant, and often bewildering, word combinations. I remember showing the sermon to a member of our church, a man with a master’s degree in education. We puzzled and debated for some time over the meaning that was intended, finally agreeing that the message was a striking and elegant achievement but quite ambiguous and perplexing.

It is not difficult for most preachers to overwhelm their congregations. Usually the preacher has had a certain amount of specialized education; often he is a man of superior intelligence. He will usually be speaking to at least a few people who have little formal education. It is imperative, therefore, that he keep in mind the counsel of Denney: “No man can give at one and the same time the impression that he himself is clever and that Jesus Christ is mighty to save.”

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Secondly, there are the overly psychological sermons. A sermon preached in a large Eastern church included such ideas as the “quest for identity,” the risks involved in “self-declaration,” and our “involvement in the anxieties of living.” After reading the sermon carefully, I was able to capture the basic meaning. But what of those who were not able to give it careful study, who needed to understand it by hearing? I doubt that one person in an average hundred could have followed the thought.

The training in pastoral psychology that the modern preacher receives should not blind him to the fact that, even for the average college graduate, the thought patterns of psychology and psychiatry are not familiar ground. You may easily overwhelm your congregation with your psychological acumen, but will you bring them face to face with the living Christ?

Thirdly, there are the overly simplified sermons. I once sat under a preacher who used the same phrases and ideas so frequently that he began to apologize for them himself! An evangelist once said, “It’s the old, old story. You’ve heard it so many times before, but it’s still the wonderful Gospel.” I wondered whether he was proclaiming or apologizing.

The peril of depending upon the wisdom of human words does not excuse the preacher from striving to make the most effective use of the language. The story is an old one indeed, but it can be expressed in limitless ways. If the minds of the congregation are to be kept focused upon Christ rather than the Sunday roast, it is imperative that the preacher labor to retell the old, old story, sparing no efforts to capture the immensity of grace in human words, and drawing forth freshness from the well of his own experience and growth.

Fourthly, there are the overly egocentric sermons. While it is true that the preacher will always be working around the hub of his own experience, he must beware lest he find himself proclaiming his own frustrations rather than the riches of God’s grace. Somehow he must separate himself from the irritations and problems that he encounters throughout the week and concentrate wholly upon the truths of the Gospel as found in the Bible.

Otherwise he may find himself mistaking a chip on his shoulder for fire in his bones. A pastor stood up on Mother’s Day, looked at his congregation, and said: “I guess I’m supposed to say something nice about mothers today. But the way I feel about women today, it’ll be hard to say anything.” Problems with women in churches go back to the days when Euodias and Syntyche were at odds at Philippi. The wise preacher, however, will proclaim his Lord rather than advertise his personal problems.

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Fifthly, there is the overly theoretical sermon. Ours is a pragmatic age. Whether the sermon is topical or expository, devotional or doctrinal, it will not penetrate the hearts of the congregation unless it can be shown to be practical. A man should never be left at the end of a sermon with the attitude, “Well, so what?” He ought always to be faced with a decision.

At some point, the sermon must intersect the problems, the aspirations, or the interests of the hearer. Some years ago the newspapers proclaimed that President Truman had announced that the national deficit would be seven billion dollars less than anticipated. On a back page of one newspaper, there was a story about three boys who had made a splint for a dog with a broken leg. A survey revealed that 44 per cent of the women readers remembered the dog story but only 8 per cent recalled the President’s announcement.

Finally, there is the overly equivocal sermon. The temper of the age is symbolized by a Methodist church that had on its outdoor signboard a message urging attendance at the nearby Presbyterian church. There is almost a fear of dogmatism, a reluctance to preach in the spirit of “Thus saith the Lord” that borders on inanity.

A pastor in a large church of a total-abstinence denomination preached a sermon entitled “To drink or not to drink.” Afterwards a young woman remarked: “I’m still not sure whether he thinks we ought to or ought not to.”

Years ago Mark Twain revealed, in characteristic fashion, the absurdity of being overly equivocal. His editor had cautioned him to state only facts, and those that he could verify by personal knowledge. When he was sent to cover an important social event, he turned in the following: “A woman giving the name of Mrs. James Jones who is reported to be one of the society leaders in the city gave what is reported to be a party yesterday to a number of alleged ladies. The hostess claims to be the wife of a reputed attorney.”

God has chosen to save the world by means of the foolishness of preaching. Preaching is the utilization of words. Words that leave the hearers awed but perplexed, words that fail to capture the imagination, words that reflect the preacher’s personal frustrations, words that lack practical application, and words that hesitate in uncertainty will fall into that chasm that ever threatens to separate the pulpit from the pew. May our words be worthy of the “exceeding riches of his grace.”

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I’D Do It Again

Every now and then someone says to me, “Pastor, if you had the opportunity to choose your vocation again, would you choose the gospel ministry?” And my answer always is, “Yes, even after twenty-five years in the ministry, I’d do it again.”

There are several reasons for my answer. I am sure that no profession offers so many opportunities for service, so many challenges, so many burdens to be lifted, so many sorrowing people to be comforted, so many eager youth to train, so many souls to be led to Christ, as does the gospel ministry.

No other profession requires so much hard work for such meager earnings, so much self-sacrifice often for such little appreciation, as does the gospel ministry.

Therefore, I say these things to my questioner: The ministry is the one profession you should never enter unless you are “called,” the one vocation you should never remain in unless you succeed, the one life-work you can never be content with unless you give more than you receive, and the only job in which your fellow man is your master, Christ your senior partner, your conscience, through the Spirit, often your only guide, and God your constant strength and stay.

The gospel ministry is humbling yet ennobling, tiring yet invigorating, discouraging yet more often encouraging, depressing yet exalting, filled with both distressing and glorious experiences. You will never be the same again after you prepare for and enter the ministry, and you will never want to be the same.

Your fellow men will use you, the Church will praise you, your Lord will bless you, and your Heavenly Father will reward you in his kingdom.

Yes, even after twenty-five years, I’d do it again!—THE REV. LESTER MILTON UTZ, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Holmes Beach, Florida.

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