First, we might bring back pulpits. It doesn’t have to be the kind that remind us of churches of yesteryear. How about designing a contemporary pulpit that accents the fact that the preacher has been commissioned by the church, and that the sermon is finally under the authority of the church—all of which is under the authority of God? Something that says in its design that in this moment, the sermon—the spoken word of God—is not about the speaker of that word but about the God who stands with and above the preacher.
Second, pastors might shorten the sermon so that the service is not dominated by one person and one voice. We can make room for more singing. Make room for more prayer. Make room for silence. Maybe make room for the regular celebration of the sacraments/ordinances. In other words, we can make room for God.
That means congregations have to give the pastor more time for sermon preparation. As hard as it might be to believe, it takes more time to prepare a shorter sermon than a longer one, because every word and phrase becomes ever more weighted. It requires the preacher to think hard about what to keep in and what to leave out.
Third, I’d suggest we put a moratorium on personal illustrations—or at least go to some lengths to curtail the number. Preachers can tell they have become addicted to personal illustrations the moment they decide to stop using them. Try for a few weeks not to use any, and what you’ll see is your mind returning to yourself and your experience time and again to drive home a point.
Of course, in a People magazine/Facebook culture, where we are dying to know the intimate details of others’ lives, where someone doesn’t seem authentic unless they reveal something from their personal life—well, we cannot be effective communicators in this culture without dropping in the occasional personal illustration. People want to identify personally with speakers and preachers and writers. So if we want to gain an audience in this culture, we have to offer them a bit of ourselves. This is precisely why, when I am a guest speaker at a church, I try to include one personal illustration toward the beginning of my talk. For better or worse, it makes it more likely that the audience will give me an ear. It’s also why my publisher asked me to include a few in my book.
So I get it. But I’m unclear why a pastor, who has all sorts of occasions other than worship to lift the veil and let the congregation see him as more than a preacher, needs week after week to draw on his own life to drive home a point in sermon after sermon. And I’ve seen too many instances when the personal anecdote becomes such a crutch that a cult of personality slowly but surely begins to develop around the pastor.
Part of this is due to sheer laziness—believe me, I speak from personal acquaintance with the vice. It’s so much easier to reach into one’s memory than it is to read extensively. And when Sunday morning is breathing down your neck, it’s just too easy to reach for the personal illustration.
Part of this is due to the fact that preachers do not feel they have time to read widely and deeply, in literature, in history, in politics, in theology. So they don’t have anything in the tank when they sit down to write a sermon. It’s another reason congregations need to insist that their pastors take anywhere from 10 to 15 hours a week in sermon preparation.
Fourth, preachers need to ask themselves at the beginning, the middle, and the end of sermon preparation: “Is this mostly about God? Does this help people better grasp who God is, and what he has done for us in Christ? Does it first and foremost exalt Christ?”
One sign of how horizontal our faith has become is the internal objection that our minds raise at this point: Really? Can I preach about God week after week? I mean, how much can one say about Christ before it gets old or one starts repeating oneself?
One objection, of course, is a good one: “Doesn’t my congregation need guidance on how to live in Christ?” Yes! And when that guidance is thoroughly and firmly grounded in who Christ is and what he has done for us, then it will be more relevant and meaningful than anything we can conjure up by talking about our needs with highlight reels from our lives.