27 April 2022

The sermon.

SERMON 'sər.mən noun. Homily. A lecture on a moral or religious subject, usually presented to a church.
2. A long, boring lecture.
[Sermonic sər'mɑn.ɪk adjective, sermonize 'sər.mən.aɪz verb.]

In sermon-focused churches, the central part of their Sunday morning worship service (or Saturday evening, or Wednesday night, or whenever they hold it) is duh, the sermon. If they didn’t have a sermon, or if the sermon wasn’t impressive enough, they “didn’t have church.” They could shorten the music; they could skip holy communion entirely. But they’d better have a sermon.

I should point out neither Jesus nor his apostles instructed us to preach sermons as part of our worship services. Seriously; they didn’t! But I suspect that’s because they presumed religious instruction would automatically be part of the services anyway. Christians are expected to strengthen, encourage, and comfort the church, 1Co 14.3-5 and good religious instruction does that.

And religious instruction was the whole point of synagogues. Pharisees invented them so Israel wouldn’t be religiously illiterate, and fall into sin. Early Christian churches behaved an awful lot like Christian synagogues: At some point someone would go up front, read the scriptures, sit down, and answer questions about what was just read. Over time this instruction got less interactive, and more lecture-y.

For many Christians, sermons are the entire point of attending a church service: They wanna learn about God! They don’t know enough about him… or do, but wanna hear more. The newbies need to learn the basics, and the oldtimers need to be reminded to stick to these basics. As knowledgeable as we might get about theology, bible history, religious practice, and our own experiences with God, we need to be regularly reminded: Love God, love your neighbor, pray, share Jesus, be fruity, do good works, and grow his kingdom.

Topical sermons.

Sermons take various forms, depending on what the church is used to, and the preacher’s ability or style. The type I encounter most often is topical, which of course means it’s about a specific subject or theme.

Fr’instance a preacher might want to spend this month talking about generosity. Or love, peace, patience, or even the Spirit’s fruit in general. Or bad fruit—either to condemn bad behavior, or just warn us lest we slide into it. Or they’re trying to teach basic theology, like I do: How God’s a trinity, or how Jesus is God, or how Jesus’s self-sacrifice deals with sin, or what resurrection is.

The first sermon I ever preached was of course a topical one. ’Cause they’re ridiculously easy to write. Pick a topic… then bust out your Nave’s Topical Bible, which has most of the topics you can think of in alphabetical order, and under each entry is every verse which even remotely touches upon that topic.

Or appears to. Y’see, Dr. Orville Nave, the guy who assembled it and published it in 1897, paid little to no attention to the context of the verses he used. He just listed any verse which touched upon the subject; any verse which appeared to touch upon it. Even if they don’t really. Even if they’re not proper interpretations of scripture. Double-checking whether these are valid proof texts was left for the preacher to figure out.

Thing is, most of the folks who use a Nave’s assume Nave actually did double-check the verses. Consequently a lot of Nave’s-based sermons are some of the worst-researched stuff. Like this one time a previous pastor of mine quoted one of Job’s friends (whom the LORD bluntly said was wrong about him Jb 42.7) to prove his point. Dude slapped his sermon together the night before with a Naves and a Red Bull, and it showed.

This aside, topical sermons are popular because people really do wanna know what God thinks about specific subjects. Thing is, on some subjects God has said very little; i.e. he doesn’t care which basketball team you follow. (I know; you claim it’s the one with all the Christians, but God knows how devout they really are.) Some preachers honestly try to make an educated guess. But too often they just tell you what they believe, quote any verses which appear to back ’em up, conveniently ignore any verses which don’t, and try to make it sound like this was God’s idea all along.

What we gotta do is treat a tropical sermon as if we’re jurors in a courtroom. The preacher is the prosecutor, presenting evidence. And they need to do so in a way which deals with every reasonable doubt: They gotta present evidence from the scriptures, quoted honestly and accurately. They gotta deal with any evidence to the contrary—again, honestly and accurately. And if we still have reasonable doubts, the case has not been made.

(Now, if the case has been made, but you still have your doubts, bear in mind you might not be all that reasonable. Let’s be honest with ourselves. Talk those doubts over with the Holy Spirit.)

Expository sermons.

I know certain conservative preachers who are absolute snobs when it comes to this type of sermon. They’re adamant the only sermons which should ever be preached are the expository sort.

Thing is, I’ve heard some of their sermons. They aren’t all that expository.

Expository means to explain or describe something. In an expository sermon, what we’re supposed to be doing is we open up the bible to a particular passage, read the passage, then explain the passage, verse by verse. What’s the historical background of this passage? Who’s the author? Who’s the subjects? How should this verse be accurately interpreted?—do our favorite translations get it right, or is there some nuance in the original languages which they’re skipping? Are there any cultural things we’d miss because we live thousands of years later, in entirely different cultures?

Instead, the sort of not-all-that-“expository” sermons I’ve heard, consist of someone reading a passage, verse by verse. Then the preacher pulls a topic or two out of each individual verse… then preaches a little mini-sermon about each topic. A mini-topical sermon. Ten unrelated topical sermons, connected to one another by the thin tissue of 10 verses. Yet people think that’s exactly how you do exposition… ’cause that’s how Matthew Henry wrote his bible commentaries.

Nope. What a proper expository sermon should look like, is a proper bible commentary. With historical background. Original-language words, and what they mean. Connections to similar ideas in the scriptures, but only ideas which help us understand the passage; they’re not riffs on the same subject.

Those snobs who insist expository sermons are the only things Christians oughta preach: I can’t agree. When preachers do their homework, a topical sermon can most definitely teach bible. Whereas when an “expositor” hasn’t done any homework at all, and is just reading a verse and saying whatever comes into their minds about the verse, it can be just as wrong and twisted as anyone who’s trying to force their ideas upon the text.

Nope, “expository preaching” doesn’t automatically mean “solid bible teaching.” Heretics give expository sermons all the time.

Prophetic sermons.

Some preachers present sermons which entirely consist of messages God personally told them.

This category of sermon is very controversial among Christians. And I’m not just talking about cessationists, who insist God doesn’t do prophecy anymore; nor people who are really skeptical (often, understandably so) of present-day prophets who prophesy falsehood, yet get forgiven by their fans instead of executed like they did in bible times.

Y’see, most Evangelicals hold to either sola scriptura or prima scriptura—our teachings oughta be entirely based on bible, or primarily based on bible. And a prophetic sermon doesn’t primarily come from bible. It comes from what the prophet thinks God told them. Which had better be consistent with bible—and the preacher oughta quote tons of bible to confirm what God told them. But since it’s not primarily based on bible, it feels, to many Evangelicals… kinda wrong.

But that’s only because they’re not used to this kind of sermon. Which is a shame, because they should be used to it: It’s what we read in the bible. The apostles and prophets didn’t quote bible, then expound on it; they were still writing bible. What they did was make prophetic statements, then (in the case of the New Testament authors) quote bible to back ’em up. Read Hebrews sometimes; most scholars are pretty sure it’s a transcribed early-church sermon. It’s very prophetic.

Now. You recall what I said about topical sermons—how we gotta treat them like jurors listening to a prosecutor make a case. This is particularly true with prophetic sermons. We gotta judge for ourselves whether the preacher really did hear from God, or whether what the preacher is saying is truly consistent with bible. They might not have, and it might not be! You’d better carefully double-check them. Unfortunately what I’ve seen all too often in churches with prophetic sermons, is the crowd eats up these sermons like a little kid going to town on chocolate pudding. They’re oohing and aahing—it’s so profound! Even though a basic examination of the scriptures reveals this dude is so full of crap, when he cries he should have brown tears.

I have no issue with prophetic sermons—so long that the prophet has had plenty of time to meditate on the scriptures, confirm this truly is a message from God to his church, and humbly present it as something they think the church oughta know. But some prophetic preachers seem to be more interested in cranking out prophetic content—“See, God tells me stuff all the time”—and less in study and humility. So, y’know, not good.


A testimony is of course something God has done in your life. Like when a missionary visits your church and tells you about all the cool things their ministry is doing. Or when an evangelist visits your church and tells you a dozen fun stories about leading people to Jesus. These guys might tack a short scripture lesson onto their talk at the end, but yeah, their sermons are pretty much all testimonies.

Which is fine! So long that these folks don’t say anything contrary to scripture, it’s all good. Most people recognize it’s good for us to hear testimonies. There might be some picky Christians who really want that short scripture lesson added to the end, otherwise they’re gonna bellyache about how “none of it was biblical,” but ignore them; they’re bering selfish and ignorant. Did these preachers share Jesus with strangers, then encourage us with their stories? Then it’s biblical. ’Cause it’s what all of us should be doing; it’s exactly what Jesus and the apostles taught, whether we heard direct quotes from them or not.

Evangelistic sermons.

The point of an evangelistic sermon is to introduce people to Jesus, and convince ’em to follow him as Lord.

Sometimes the entire sermon is an evangelistic one. More often, only part of it is: You’ll hear a testimony, or a topical, exegetical, or prophetic sermon. Then in the last 10 minutes, the preacher shifts gears and tries to connect everything which came before, with a short message about who Jesus is, and an offer to come to him and become Christian.

For some preachers, every message has to end with an evangelistic mini-sermon. And y’know, I see nothing wrong with this. Why not invite everybody to meet Jesus, as often as we can? Although sometimes the connection between the previous sermon and the mini-sermon at the end, feels stretched-out and fake. Sometimes I think it’s better if the preacher doesn’t bother, and just says, “This concludes what I have to say about Christian tattoos… and now I’d like to invite anyone who doesn’t have a relationship with Jesus to have one.” An abrupt switch might get more attention (and fewer groans at its cheesiness) than a “clever” segue between whole different subjects.

Winging it.

When you take notes on a sermon (as you should), over time you’ll get the hang of figuring out the sermon’s outline. But sometimes… you’ll notice it has no outline. Or you simply can’t figure it out, ’cause the preacher keeps going off on tangents and never comes back. Or the subject keeps switching from topic to topic. Or the sermon seemed to be a testimony at first… but then it became another testimony, or a string of them, or a string of other people’s testimonies. Or a prophecy, but then became a string of prophecies.

These preachers are clearly pulling a sermon out of their asses.

Pastors get busy! Sometimes there are so many things going on that week, there’s no time to sit down, read their bibles, research any passage, and meditate on it. Or they were suffering from writer’s block and couldn’t think up a topic. Life happens.

In too many cases, they think winging a sermon is actually a form of trusting the Holy Spirit to direct their words. Kinda like when Jesus said, “Don’t worry in advance about what to say. Just say what God tells you at that time, for it is not you who will be speaking, but the Holy Spirit.” Mk 13.11 But in context this verse is about when Jesus’s followers get hauled into a courtroom for preaching the gospel: It’s not about Sunday morning services! It’s not about how the pastor, who has a week to prepare a message, should use that week to prepare a message: It’s about when you’re caught unprepared. And it’s certainly not about how it’s okay for Pastor to get up and riff in front of a crowd like a bad stand-up comedian who doesn’t think he has to write jokes—and hope his personal charisma will make up for the fact that he showed up to class without his homework.

Look, life gets busy. It happens! And when it happens, and as a result you have nothing to present, don’t preach. Ask someone else to. Call people up and have them share testimonies all service long. Some preachers, wisely, have two or three back-up sermons prepared in case anyone unexpectedly calls on them to preach (you’d be surprised how often that happens) and can preach that if they have to. There really is no excuse for winging it. Don’t do it. Don’t put up long with preachers that do.