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Bad Preaching 101

This article was published in The Living Church, March 14, 1999.

"God gave me the gift of preaching; and I wasn't going to let no Episcopal seminary take it away from me!" -The Rt. Rev. Barbara Harris, when asked if she had ever taken a seminary homiletics class.

Good morning, class, and welcome to your first seminary homiletics course, "Bad Preaching 101."

This class is devoted to the art and practice of bad preaching in the Episcopal Church. By the end of this course, you will have mastered the basic skills required to preach the radical gospel of Jesus Christ while minimizing the risk of actually being crucified yourself.

You will learn about these and other useful techniques: Boredom as a Diversionary Tactic; Modern Methods of Academic Evasion, including the Uses and Abuses of 19th Century German Terminology; Mining the Obscure Riches of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations; Making the Most of Crying Infants; and the Magic of Poor Sound Systems.

There are three elements of bad preaching which, when skillfully treated, have a reassuringly numbing effect on a congregation. (And yes, this will be on the final exam.)

These three elements are:
1. The Obvious Theme
2. The Obscure Exposition
3. The Impossible Conclusion

To illustrate my points in this introductory lecture, I will refer to a story told by Jesus in the 12th Chapter of Luke's gospel, verses 13-21, commonly known as the "Parable of the Rich Fool." This story is deeply threatening to most Episcopalians, indeed to any American with an investment portfolio. Thus our challenge is defined: how to tell the truth about this story without deeply offending our congregations.

1. The Obvious Theme

No matter how bad the sermon, one cannot avoid capturing the attention of the congregation for at least the first minute or so of the sermon. During that dangerous interval, one must signal the congregation that they are not going to hear anything they haven't heard a hundred times before. Thus, the best bad sermons begin in the selection of the sermon's theme. The more obvious the theme of the sermon, the more quickly will the congregation feel free to attend to less threatening activities, such as reading the announcements on the bulletin, or writing a check for the offertory.

For example, the parable of the rich fool illustrates the sin of greed. Jesus describes a rich farmer who has succeeded in storing-up enough grain to last him many years, thereby winning an extended vacation if not an early retirement; but on the night of judgment his investments only serve as an indictment upon his soul.

When preparing to preach on this story, one should list the many cliches which come to mind:

"You can't take it with you."
"The love of money is the root of all evil."
"Money cannot buy happiness," etc.

The more worn aphorisms one can associate with the text, the more likely will the congregation be lulled into thinking that they actually understand the text; and from there it is just a short step to their thinking there is nothing very scandalous about the text. Present the obvious theme as a loyal dog presents a favorite pair of bedroom slippers; train your voice to smoothly communicate with sentiment and nostalgia; above all, maintain the impression that that which is easily understood is easily accomplished.

To be avoided are pithy quotations which rephrase the theme of your sermon in an arresting way. For instance, Sitting Bull's remark, that "the white settlers' love of possessions was a disease to them," should be put aside. And of course, political associations should be avoided at all costs.

When reading your sermon before the congregation (and yes, in the Episcopal Church, all bad sermons must be read from a manuscript -- that's the rule) never attempt to bring Jesus' passion for this topic into your reading. For Episcopalians, emotion of any kind can be profoundly disorienting.

2. The Obscure Exposition

Every bad preacher knows the feeling of dread which descends when, having presented the obvious theme in the first minute, the preacher faces many more minutes of air time, during which he or she is expected to say something that sounds impressive. This is the job of the obscure exposition. By embroidering your theme with obtuse scholarship, you will create the important impression that the obvious theme is actually quite complex and difficult.

Few methods further this goal better than the long academic assay into the exegetical, hermeneutical and historical-critical debates concerning the Biblical text. References to obscure scholars and historical figures are the ballast in the ship of bad preaching; all the better, of course, when quoted in the kind of learned, distant tone which suggests that the preacher had discovered the passage himself just the other day while leafing through the collected works of Josephus.

With respect to the parable of the rich fool, for instance, the bad preacher will be delighted to find in the reference books a dispute among experts with respect to whether or not verses 16-21 should be considered a separate pericope from verses 13-15, and another discussion as to whether there is any evidence to suggest that the parable is related to similar treatments found in Q. The bad preacher should devote the bulk of his sermon to these and similar questions.

Remember, however, that it is not the goal of bad preaching to actually put the congregation to sleep. A good bad preacher must be entertaining enough to give the impression of competence in the pulpit, yet not so entertaining that people might actually remember the sermon upon leaving the church. For this purpose, there are many joke books for clergy that can be bought, and many of these have the additional benefit of reducing compelling questions of faith to a sentimental story with a humorous punchline.

3. The Impossible Conclusion

Having thus used-up the expected allotment of time, the bad preacher can begin the conclusion of his sermon by repeating the sermon's obvious theme, but this time with greater vocal gravity and significant pauses.

Finally, the familiar aphorism is rephrased in the form of an impossible moral imperative, utilizing that most useful word, "should". For example, "Indeed, the love of money is the root of all evil; therefore we should put aside all greed and live our lives as God intended." With this or other suitably impossible imperatives, the preacher may safely conclude with a prayer.

Please note that the bad preacher does not embarrass the congregation with answers to practical questions such as, "How do we attain this freedom from the love of money ?" The bad preacher will dismiss these kinds of questions as if their answers were obvious.

This approach strengthens the illusion that the congregation is filled with satisfied, spiritually competent people. Never encourage members of your church to explore their own emptiness or spiritual hunger. Maintain a wall of benign mystery with respect to the practical questions of the spiritual life -- otherwise you will flirt with the unpredictable forces of spiritual renewal.

In general you must reinforce the impression that the spiritual journey is a lonely one; that an Episcopal church is no place to begin seeking spiritual companions; that we come to the communion rail not out of our emptiness but out of our worthiness; and that the heights of genuine spiritual fellowship cannot compare to the pleasures that are to be found at the coffee hour.

Thank you for your attention. Next time, we will discuss in greater detail the use of humor as an evasive device in bad preaching. Please read the first article listed in your syllabus, entitled "Jesus Was Actually aVery Funny Guy," by Professor Franz Bibfeldt.

Thank you and have a good day.

The Rev. Matthew Lawrence
Chaplain, Canterbury House
Director, Institute for Public Theology