by Rev. Dr. Robert R. LaRochelle
It has long been a well-established ‘given’ that the sermon plays a crucial role in any worship service. The importance of the preached word was a valuable insight of and priority established in the Reformation and in the years since the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church has committed itself to in depth homiletic training of its clergy ( priests and deacons) for whom preaching is part of their ministry. Yet, in spite of the expectations of good preaching, it is important to raise questions about its effectiveness in local churches and to explore some ways in which messages delivered by a preacher might be even more effective.
As someone who over a lengthy career preaching in both Catholic and Protestant contexts, I often wonder if the sermon is ever remembered even later on in the service, much less four or five days later. Consequently, one of the most important factors in sermon preparation is my own focus on one particular question: Does this message connect to the real life of the people who hear it? In other words, is there something in it that leads people to think that these words of the Bible were not just written for another time and place but instead have incredible relevance to the way they live their lives?
Likewise, I believe that the sermon has to be presented as a message respectful of peoples’ ability to question and to doubt. So often, I have heard sermons that have presented some pretty incredible pieces of information as ‘givens’. I mean, really, what intelligent person might have some doubt that this Biblical character REALLY lived to be 900?? So, what I am saying is that the preacher must be realistic in her or his assumption that the listeners are capable of intelligent and critical thought.
In addition, I would like to suggest two approaches I have used which can help complement the overall approach to preaching in a local congregation:
- I really like to provide specific opportunities to DISCUSS the sermon. Oftentimes, I have done adult education programs after worship in which the topic was the sermon itself. This is a wonderful way to engage the ‘listeners’ and really help make them participants in a shared breaking open of God’s Word. I was first exposed to this approach as a college student who attended a local church quite frequently where the pastor offered us this opportunity. I loved it then and I find it helpful now!
- On occasion, I like to preach a CONVERSATIONALSERMON in which I will say a few things, for sure, but will also open up the conversation to the insights and questions of members of the congregation. When it is prepared and responded to well, it makes possible a preaching dynamic that draws upon the lived real life experience of the participants at worship. At times, I have even done this for several consecutive Sundays using a specific thematic approach to that block of time. Examples of these sermons and a more developed commentary can be found in my book SO MUCH OLDER THEN, published by Energion.
It is my view that now, as much as ever, the sermon remains an integral part of Christian worship. It is so important that great emphasis should always be placed on preaching well. Good preaching, as I see it, involves a willingness on the part of the preacher to approach this task creatively and expansively, with due respect given to peoples’ intelligence and lived experience grappling with the issues raised in the Scripture we proclaim!
I look forward to your comments!
Click on any picture for more information or to order