The Cure for Stale Preaching
Nobody likes stale preaching. Nobody.
Pastors who pluck the same sermons from their files year after year fret over the relevance of their material. Congregations sense when old sermons—regardless of how well prepared or researched back in the day—have no immediacy. Worship becomes something like the food in the school cafeteria: everyone endures it together.
But nobody likes it.
Those of us who care most about worship dig in to fight worship doldrums. We put in the time to prepare weeks or even months in advance. With such an unwieldy amount of material to be covered, we use the tools available to us to narrow the Bible down to more manageable segments. Unfortunately, some of our most often-used resources actually get in our way.
For many preachers and other worship leaders, the Revised Common Lectionary is the menu for the aforementioned school cafeteria. It tells us what to serve. Like it or not, we look for a way to be nourished by it. Our peers have to eat it too, so we don’t question it. We douse it with ketchup and swallow hard.
Some kids bring their own lunch, of course. Bookstores (virtual and otherwise) are stocked with worship resources that tout the sermon series of famous preachers, or the video clips megachurches use. But those are just as pre-planned as the lectionary, and can be just as limiting.
So how do we get beyond stale preaching without resorting to gimmicks? How do we communicate the bible narrative with passion, yet without the melodrama of manufactured zeal?
We start by making a better plan.
That isn’t to say we throw out the wisdom of others. We can still weave in and out of the lectionary, especially during important moments in the Christian year. We can still look at the way other preachers organize and augment their work in hopes that it will spark an idea in us.
But we also have to remember a key premise: all worship is contextual. It is particular to a certain time and a certain place among certain people.
Preaching guru Ellsworth Kalas likes to talk about the intersection at which a sermon happens. The Scripture text, the calendar, the preacher, and the congregation all converge at the moment of worship. A good preaching and worship plan takes into account each of these contextual elements. The text is the primary source of God’s revelation, but is always being renewed and reframed. What texts are speaking most to us right now? Which biblical stories most comfort us, and which most bother us? We should be preaching from both.
The calendars of a community give rhythm to life, and often signal to us when something special is called for. A friend of mine at a large church combines their six worship services once a year for the Fourth of July. Several of my rural colleagues get have harvest festivals, or celebrate the opening of deer season. One friend in Wisconsin has to take into account where and when the Packers are playing. The life of a congregation gets reflected in the calendars, but includes other things as well. Anniversaries, economic conditions, and family concerns play a big role in how a community views itself, and what it’s able to take in.
And finally, a good preaching plan considers the preacher. What things are bringing me alive right now? Where do I see those reflected in Scripture? Which parts of my life are appropriate and maybe even necessary to reveal from the pulpit?
With these things in mind, it’s time to sit down with our worship leaders and make the plan. Although this process can look very different in different settings (context, remember!), it always needs to include more than just the preacher. Constructive input from a variety of sources is vital to keeping a preaching plan from becoming egocentric or patronizing.
The results can be wonderfully creative. My friend Michelle tells about her church’s decision to forego the lectionary for one entire year in an effort to get a broader view of the Bible.
“I felt like we were just popping around from one Scripture to another every week,” she says. “While that may be good sometimes, it kept us from getting a handle on the big themes in the Bible. So we put our heads together and came up with something new.”
Michelle took her idea to the preaching and worship staff. Together, they identified some of the most foundational stories of the Bible, from Abraham to Isaiah to Jesus to John. They developed a reading guide and small group resources to go along with the preaching plan.
“It was a lot of work,” Michelle says, “but I think we had better results because it was something we put together. It pushed our preachers to write sermons on passages they usually wouldn’t consider, and it developed an atmosphere in which the congregation showed up on Sunday expecting to hear something that mattered.”
Michelle’s experience isn’t the rule, of course. Leaving the safety of pre-planned worship resources means acting creatively. And some creative efforts are bound to fail.
No matter. Even the best planned worship calendars carry some risk, because worship itself is risky. It is a moment in time that may or may not follow the script. But by careful planning that pays careful attention to the contextual factors at work, we can at least be confident and ready when the moment arrives.
By varying the worship menu, we can offer up more than burnt pizza squares or processed chicken nuggets. We can set the table for a banquet.