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Why Preach?

When I was in the process of getting a master’s degree in sacred music, I had to take several classes offered at the theology school. One class, I don’t remember which one, assigned a paper entitled “Why Preach?”

I really struggled with the assignment. As a future minister of music, preaching was not what I intended to do. As far as I was concerned, a preacher preached – that’s what church was – church on Sunday always included a sermon delivered by the minister. There was no alternative; each church service included preaching. The question, therefore, stumped me.

After completing graduate school, I initially worked as a music minister before becoming a college music professor for rest of my career (although I continued to direct church choirs on a part-time basis). The college administration drilled into the faculty that lecture-based classes are not the only or necessarily the best way to teach. Lectures do not engage most students. The best teachers break up the monotony of lectures by engaging students in a more dynamic learning environment. Since individuals learn differently, the best teachers employ various methods to present their material. Only visual/verbal and auditory/verbal learners get anything out of lectures. All others (tactile/kinesthetic and visual/nonverbal learners, for instance) simply disengage. Lecturing may work if rote learning and memorization are required, but it does not develop critical thinking skills. In most instances, the lecturer presents his or her own perspective on the subject that may be biased – these are the facts, no discussion allowed. The best teachers present content from multiple angles and offer varying opinions. Unfortunately many teachers are not excellent public speakers, therefore lecturing is a horrible choice. Since the average attention span is ten to fifteen minutes or less, the best educators change teaching methods often. Passive lectures ignore many of the abilities that students need to succeed: creativity, critical thinking, analysis and other more active ingredients of education.

Unfortunately, most sermons are lectures and the huge majority of preachers are not great speakers – weekly sermons are often written too late for the minister to present them from memory with some degree of showmanship, a word that is probably frowned upon by most clergy. Most sermons that are read from the pulpit quickly put their listeners to sleep.

Back in “the good ole days,” it was accepted that preachers knew more – they were often among the most educated people in the community – so their congregants listened to what they said and patterned their lives accordingly. I’m not sure that is universally true today.

Considering all the sermons that have been delivered, has preaching worked? I would guess the answer is “not very well.” Why not? One theory is that preachers were not preaching the true gospel; they were not giving their congregations enough “hellfire and brimstone” sermons – scaring the hell out of them. I certainly hope that is not the answer.

Was a sermon responsible for most ministers accepting the “call to ministry?” In the huge majority of instances, I’d guess, their decision was not solely based on hearing a sermon, understanding it, and acting accordingly. It was an experience that spurred their decision. The same is true for others: experiences change non-believers into believers and cause believers to live more Christ-like lives. No one was ever saved by a sermon.

So, why preach? There is no simple, single answer. The answer probably depends on the person’s theology, their life experience, and their sense of what constitutes Christian worship. Preachers must have something to say that is worth listening to. Their church attendees need to hear something more than meaningless noise and pretty platitudes. They need to hear something that is not a lecture. What is preached must spur their listeners to live more Christ-like daily lives. The answer cannot be I’m a preacher so I preach.

Once again, I doubt I have answered the question any better than I did fifty-plus years ago in theology school. I’d certainly be interested in hearing other potential answers.

Review & Commentary