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Sermons are cited by three out of four worshippers as the major factor in attracting them to religious services, according to a Gallup poll in 2017. Responders to the survey said they place a high value on pulpit messages that teach about scripture and they long for messages from the pulpit that help them make a connection between faith and their daily lives.
“This doesn’t surprise me,” says Alyce McKenzie, director of the Perkins Center for Preaching Excellence, located on the campus of Southern Methodist University. “My sense is that people are hard-wired to try to make a coherent narrative out of the disparate events in their lives. They yearn to have the stories of their own lives placed in a larger context. They hunger for a story that has better preface and a much better ending — a story that helps them understand more fully their own journey.”
Delivering sermons that tell the Christian story in ways that engage parishioners “has never been more important or perhaps more difficult,” notes McKenzie. “Worshippers today want the reality of careful preparation and at the same time the appearance of total spontaneity. They want a conversational message filled with memorable visual images. They don’t want a pastor to read to them. They want eye contact and a sense of interaction.”
Adding to this challenge is the fact that preachers in 2017 can’t assume that members of their congregations are familiar with the scriptural passages at the heart of their sermons. Attention spans are shorter; competing information can be deafening; and technology, while it can reinforce a message, can also dilute or even overwhelm a message. Feedback from worshipers tends to be perfunctory rather than substantive and often takes the form of casual comments — “I enjoyed your message”— that accompany handshakes at the end of the service. McKenzie frequently preaches at a large United Methodist Church near Dallas, has a coaching relationship with another congregation and is the author of numerous preaching textbooks. Still, she comments that “Every time I preach, I learn something new. Preaching is the work of a lifetime.”
Pursuing pulpit excellence
In an effort to strengthen the quality of preaching in Christian congregations, Lilly Endowment in 2013 launched a multifaceted program — the Initiative to Strengthen the Quality of Preaching. Since then, 18 theological schools have received grants to address the challenges that current and future pastors face as they research, prepare and deliver sermons. In 2017, the Endowment began making sustainability grants to the theological schools to help them continue their efforts as they seek additional support to sustain the programs for the long run. Each program has aspects unique to its context, but all share the initiative’s overarching goals to:
“Being a pastor is isolating,” says Marjorie Hamilton Scott, senior pastor at Armstrong African Methocist Episcopal Church in Arlington, Texas, and a member of a Perkins Center for Preaching Excellence peer learning group. “It was wonderful to have someone to talk to. This was a way to hear other people preach, which I don’t normally get to do. We were empowered to find (our) own voices.”
To address the need to strengthen preaching instruction for current seminarians, McKenzie and her team will continue to assign a preaching mentor to each student coming into the theological school. These mentors are seasoned pastors from the community who walk alongside students, participate in class discussions and offer feedback about student sermons.
The Protestant Episcopal Theological Seminary, better known as Virginia Theological Seminary (VTS), is building its preaching program on the concept of peer mentoring and support. But it focuses on the spiritual well-being of preachers, as well as practices for effective sermon preparation and delivery. VTS launched it program, Deep Calls to Deep, with a 2014 Endowment grant. Through a five-day summer residency on the VTS campus, groups of pastors gather as cohorts for worship, spiritual direction, time for private prayer and reflection, as well as workshops on preaching. Then, throughout the coming year they meet monthly as a cohort for continued reflection, shared learning and support. A final retreat at VTS bookends the experience.
“This approach was something that our team felt very strongly about,” she says. “Renewing preaching is not principally a matter of techniques and tips. Nor is it about bringing extraordinary preachers who are amazing and everyone can look up to. It is more about nurturing the spirit, the mind and the body and doing so in peer groups.”
Most Deep Calls to Deep participants are Episcopal clergy, which reflects the denominational affiliation of VTS. But Presbyterian, Baptist and other Protestant clergy are taking part, too. The cohorts are formed by geographical regions, which enables the seminary to broaden the program’s reach. The first cohort was from the mid-Atlantic region and included clergy from Maryland, Delaware, Virginia and Washington D.C. Additional cohorts formed with clergy in New York and Massachusetts and in Arizona and Texas. The program’s vision is to support clergy so they can develop lifelong spiritual practices that foster good preaching, said the Rev. Ruthanna Hooke, who directs Deep Calls to Deep.
More than peer learning and support
Building on the momentum, the Perkins program will use its $250,000 sustainability grant to form groups of denominationally diverse pastors who have similar characteristics. As an example, African American preaching will be the topic of discussion for members of a North Texas group. In Louisiana, “we’re starting a group for young clergy women who need guidance on addressing crucial issues in a way that is pastoral as well as prophetic,” says McKenzie. “We’ll help them navigate some of the difficult issues in a way that engages, rather than alienates their congregations.”
The preaching initiative builds on lessons learned in the Endowment’s successful Sustaining Pastoral Excellence Initiative of more than a decade ago. That initiative confirmed the value of forming small peer groups of pastors and giving them opportunities to experience professional and personal growth through sustained interaction with colleagues. Feedback from participants in the preaching initiative has been overwhelmingly positive.
Sharing insights, fears and deepest hopes
Overseeing the many moving parts of the preaching initiative is the responsibility of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (CICW), located at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. The Institute hosts annual learning events and invites program leaders to share insights and offer updates about their work. Director John Witvliet and his staff make site visits to the participating schools and track progress as grant recipients launch, expand and fine-tune programs to strengthen the skills of current and future preachers. Since 2013, 18 theological schools have received grants to enable them to develop preaching programs.
Witvliet applauds the diversity of these programs and praises the efforts of professors “who prepare inexperienced public speakers for the challenge of standing in front of intergenerational congregations with messages of comfort and hope.” He sees the work of the classrooms continuing in the peer learning groups. “That component does more than polish rhetorical skills,” he says. “It’s all about the growth of healthy, deeply reflective, virtuous people. Often preaching improves when pastors have the opportunity of being in a ‘safe space’ to talk candidly with some vulnerability about their greatest weaknesses, fears and deepest hopes.
As important as preaching is, Witvliet believes it is only one of several indispensable elements of healthy congregational life. The interplay of these elements—the sermon, the fellowship, the reading of scripture and the music — are essential to creating meaningful worship experiences.
Beyond the ‘pre-packaged’ model
To assist clergy in planning cohesive services, CICW has developed a website, preachingandworship.org, that provides pastors with resources suitable for a range of denominations and traditions. Supported by Endowment grants in 2013 and 2017 to Calvin College, the website is a collaborative project of CICW and the 18 seminaries in the preaching initiative. In conjunction with another site — hymnody.org — preachingandworship.org has become a valuable portal that invites church leaders to tap into a growing repository of contemporary and historic Christian literature and music.
The website serves as a curator, offering sermon starters, outlines, devotionals, reflections, podcasts, blogs and artwork, often arranged around themes and in keeping with the Christian calendar. The goal isn’t to hand a pastor a generic prepackaged service that might be duplicated in dozens of sanctuaries on any given Sunday. Instead, its purpose is to spark ideas that users can develop and tailor to the unique needs of their congregations.
Still in test mode, the new preaching and worship website provides links to 62,059 pages of web content and already is attracting a steady stream of visitors. CICW is verifying the traffic, and Witvliet notes, “It does seem telling that we’re seeing usage of the site surge noticeably on Saturdays.”