Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Christmas Sermons

Every year I feel great pressure to preach a "winner" on Christmas Eve, almost more than I do at Easter. Much of this pressure is borne by the fact that there will be many hearers who have not been to church all year. This may very well be the only Christian sermon they will have heard in 2007, so I want to preach in the most engaging way that I can. Not that I don't give due diligence to all my sermons...well, I don't. I want to, but some weeks fly by and I have to go with the best I can do for that week.

For the Pastors who read here: do you feel the same way? Do you do anything different as far as structure and delivery?

For the Laity: do you go to Church on Christmas Eve expecting to hear a bang-up sermon? Do you think others feel the same?


  1. Mike Baker said...

    I think that you are right: there is an expectation that a pastor deliver a "bang-up" sermon for the benefit of C&E [Christmas and Easter] Christians.

    In my opinion, if a pastor is capable of preaching a better sermon than usual for special occasions, then that should be his new standard every time that he advances to the pulpit. If someone is able to give 110% of his effort, then that should prove to everyone that he has trouble identifying what his 100% is. His pervious standard was set too low.

    I expect even more than this question posed. It is not that there are special services which require better sermons than usual; the fact is that there are no un-special services that can get by with substandard sermons. My C&E expectation is in effect all year for every service. Each sermon should be better than the last and each servant of Christ should outdo himself everytime he preaches. If someone is capable of performing their call at a certain level, all levels below that are failures to serve at full capacity, effort, or potential.

    ...I happen to be spoiled. I get to hear "bang-up" sermons every week.

  2. Christopher D. Hall said...

    Thanks for your thoughts. While you are correct on the one hand, as you know this life is far from perfect and sometimes we can only do the best we can with the time and energy we have and pray God will cover up the problems.

    I suspect that your Pastor probably doesn't feel the same way you do about all his sermons. And frankly, Pastors are not always the best judge of our sermons anyway. And frankly, how do we judge if a sermon is "better" than another? Do we apply standard rhetorical criticism? Hmm...

  3. Christopher Esget said...

    I disagree with Mike Baker. I too feel a tremendous pressure (perhaps self-imposed?) to preach "beyond the norm" sermons at such services as Christmas and Easter. Nevertheless, saying that "Each sermon should be better than the last and each servant of Christ should outdo himself everytime he preaches" is not taking into account that the preacher shares the same flesh and blood that his hearers have. He is sometimes tired, sick, dealing with his own personal or family problems, or his week was overcome by other parish duties (funerals, parishioners in crisis, school teaching and events, meetings, etc.).

    What constitutes a "better" sermon is often rhetorical devices, creative writing, and a dynamic delivery. These things are simply not always possible, unless the pastor has nothing else to do during the week. What a parishioner should expect is a sermon that is faithfully prepared according to the Word of God, and that the preacher has done the best he can that week with what he was given.

  4. orrologion said...

    I tend to think ministers obssess too much about their own importance to the success of a service. Sometimes the pulpit obscures and sits in place of the cross and the altar rather than illuminating them. I think most people, myself included, are there for "the service", which is the totality of the experience of worship and prayer, together with some preaching - not preaching with processional and recessional music with a snack.

  5. Christopher Esget said...

    I think you're entirely right, orrologion. However, a steady diet of criticisms (and complements) about sermons tends to reinforce this view in pastors. It would be better if everyone simply rejoiced in the Word of God than the skill or demeanor of the preacher.

  6. Emily H. said...

    "If someone is capable of performing their call at a certain level, all levels below that are failures to serve at full capacity, effort, or potential.

    We should not forget that the Holy Spirit works at all "levels".

    Being on the "inside" I know when my husband is sick or has less time for writing a sermon that week, and sometimes that is running in my head as I sit down in the pew on Sunday. However, it is often those weeks that I especially marvel at the Spirit and Truth in the sermon. From the sermon I would have thought he had spent all week working on it, but knowing otherwise I rejoice all the more in the Spirit and less in "rhetorical devices, creative writing, and dynamic delivery".

  7. Christopher Esget said...

    Exactly, Emily. I hope it was clear that I meant, 'What constitutes a better sermon in the attitudes of many of the hearers...'

  8. Emily H. said...

    Yeah, it was understood - just thought I would borrow your words for my own point. :) No offense.

  9. Doorman-Priest said...

    As I am in training all my sermons go under the microscope and picked over and analysed and I am given feedback sheets from the church council. I could do without that.

    Interestingly I have been given the task for next term of doing the same process, bar the feedbck, on three sermons over the Advent/Christmas period, in any churches of my choice.

    So far thay have not been good.

  10. Mike Baker said...

    Conditions and weaknesses should never determine standards. Standards are determined by the desired outcome. When you allow your weaknesses to set a low standard, you will always achieve it... but what have you really accomplished? Very little.

    When you set a standard at or above what you can achieve and push yourself to excel, you may fail to reach your goal... but you will at least achieve great and surprising things on a regular basis. No one ever hits a target with greater precision than their ability to aim.

    My military training prevents me from taking excuses into account when talking about standards. Excuses are not tolerated in any combat; physical or spiritual. The standard is a standard because it initially ignores all mitigating factors. There is no temptation that is uncommon to man. The flesh makes everyone weak in their vocation and we all face adversity that prevents us from doing what is required of us. Does that mean that we should settle for what we can regularly achieve in our imperfect state and call that our best? Of course not. When a wise man fails, he admits the failure and determines what went wrong; when he succeeds, he acknowledges that he can do better next time and sets out to make that a reality.

    No matter what your calling is, if you are regularly meeting your goals or you are comfortable with your daily performance, you have secured yourself by setting your standards too low. I am only applying the driving principle that fathers require of their children, bosses require of their employees, citizens require of their soldiers, and Pastors require of their sheep. What makes homiletics a uniquely different duty?

    I do not see a difference. Daily harsh self-evaluation combined with the discipline to constantly improve is the hallmark of exceptional success. My pastor delivers quality sermons every week precisely because he does not feel the way that I do about them. Improvement is unending. It is almost always a gradual, difficult process that takes discipline, patience, and practice. That is a universally applicable concept. If you are not approaching it that way, you will probably remain as you are. You may be comfortable with that, but that does not change the fact that there is always room for improvement.

    The standard is the clear delivery of properly distinguished Law and Gospel. C.F.W. Walther considered it the highest art of the theologian and wrote a very difficult book about it. Sermons are not measured by rhetoric, impressions, or taste. They are about the successful delivery of (and faithful dedication to) the truth of God's Word.

    And the success of a Pastor's duty cannot be measured by the outcome or response of the audience. He only plants and waters. The growth and repentance is solely the work of the Holy Spirit.

  11. Christopher D. Hall said...

    Christopher Orr: you're right, we obsess. I think Lutherans have this in common with other Protestants, but I wonder about Orthodox Priests. I know that the sermon is (rightfully) less prominent in the Orthodox liturgy, but in your experience do they obsess as well?

    As for the rest of the discussion (thus far), I think Mike and the rest may be talking past one another. Mike said the standard is "clear delivery of properly distinguished Law and Gospel." By that standard if I give people false comfort or preach in such a way that they feel the must *merit* salvation, then it is failure. If I misapply the text, it is likewise failure.

    However, all sermons I've written and delivered could be improved by rearranging the material, by a different delivery at some points, a better illustration or analogy (which is called for, in contrast to many pastors who preach the catena of stories or feel every sermon must have an introductory illustration,a "law" illustration and a "gospel" illustration--gag) by closer editing and so forth.

    In the time frames we face, it's not always possible to do this. Professional editors and writers know that there could always be more edits, more improvements to a text. The trick is to know how much is enough and when to stop.


  12. Mike Baker said...

    I would say that conditions determine when you stop making improvements. This is usually determined using common sense:

    1. When you encounter the situation where diminishing returns makes the expended effort worth more than the resulting improvement.
    2. When more pressing matters must take priority.
    3. When the frustration, exhaustion, or burn-out that is created by overwork would result in a negative impact on all duties which makes continued effort counter productive.

  13. said...

    I do not expect any better of a sermon on Christmas Eve than on other Sundays. That way I can be delightfully surprised. :)

    Seriously, though, I look forward to the hymns, where the pastor is under less pressure to put something new and everyone sings the traditional "Hark the Herald Angels Sing", "Silent Night," and so forth.


  14. orrologion said...

    My general experience with Orthodox priests have been that their preparation for a sermon consists in reading commentaries on the pericope for the day or on the feast or saint celebrated that day, or recently. The hymns of the services are dense with the lessons to be garnered from all of these events, so Vespers and Matins and the Synaxarion (Lives of the Saints read at Matins) are essential.

    They don't generally seem to write out their sermons, perhaps notes or bullet points or topics to hit. Basically, I've heard from a number of priests that they simply pray in the altar in the lead up to the Readings (after which is the Sermon, normally), they pick up the cross (usually held during the sermon) and go and speak letting the Spirit give them the words.

    Since sermons aren't as much the focus - the longest, main part of the Liturgy is yet to happen at this point - sermons are generally shorter and more aphoristic and relational, less didactic than is my memory of sermons in the Lutheran churches of my youth.

  15. Dixie said...

    Pastor Hall, I generally make it a point not to read or listen to Lutheran sermons any more...for what should be obvious reasons...but when you posted the notice about your church having to close because of weather I did follow the link to the church's site and listened to one of your sermons. You have a wonderful sermon demeanor and engaging style. That is automatically a plus for your C&Eers.

    But as far as bang up sermons are concerned...I am with's really the work of the Holy Spirit. You know those Sundays when you preached something and felt it didn't go well yet half a dozen parishioners told you they were so thankful for what you said...and you can't even remember saying it!

    ...we can only do the best we can with the time and energy we have and pray God will cover up the problems.

    This is key and is constantly in my prayers...particularly where it comes to my children or when I discuss the Christian faith. Besides...whatever job I attempt to do on my own will be inadequate. What He does through us is always sufficient. That's not an invitation to be a slacker. But it seems to me it sure does minimize the pressure to deliver that home run sermon.

    Regarding Orthodox priests and their sermons. My experience is similar to Christopher's. In fact...after one particularly outstanding sermon from my priest I asked if I could get a copy of it but he said he doesn't write his sermons. He reads the appointed Scriptures, prays, makes a few bullets and speaks deliberately to the specific people who are there.

    For the Orthodox the sermon isn't the highlight of the service and the liturgy is also a preaching vehicle of sorts, plus there is no required by default there is less pressure for that "bang up" sermon.

    I know that doesn't help you so much. I can surely appreciate your desire--well, really, your need to reach these infrequent attendees. But I am thinking if you focus your excess efforts on prayer...everything else will fall properly in place. To borrow a phrase from a current TV show "...I could be wrong now, but I don't think so..." :D

  16. orrologion said...

    On a more mundane level, as an actor I more than once experienced situations where I felt like everything was terrible, but the Director and audience disagreed. This is usually because we have a tendency to judge the 'success' based on how we feel, rather than in the result it elicited. If the goal is personal, feel away. If the goal is to have an effect in others, then that is the measure, regardless of how I feel. In religious terms, this is the crucifixion required to be conformed to Christ leaving nothing other than Christ in me. In pure performance terms, we are not always the best measure of ourselves; we are biased, compromised observers of ourselves.

    Of course, the difficulty comes when there is no effect on others - is it me? is it my message? is it them? Discernment is essential in these instances, and a wise, experienced counselor (director)should be consulted. Sometimes we comfort ourselves with the fact that we are preaching or teaching (or performing) the 'pure' Gospel (or acting without regard for mass culture appeal or lowbrow sentiment) when in fact we are simply not skilled or not loving our neighbor enough to speak to them where they are thus setting ourselves above them in an ivory tower that cannot be taken - our own pride and ego. Incidentally, this is often a result of insecurity and fear re our skill, the message, the content of the message, whether our lives have been wasted, etc. Again, discernment is key - and the most difficult to acquire.

  17. Christopher D. Hall said...

    Argh! I am embarassed! Despite the counsel given by profs and professionals, I have never watched (or listened) to my own sermons. Can't bear the thought. Why then do I post them over there for the world to hear? People asked me to, but I hoped no one would actually do it. And here you went and did it, Dixie.

    But thank you for your kind (and undeserved) words.

    Another factor that went unwritten is the realization that on an average Sunday, speaking to nearly the same people I speak to every week, I can approach a text differently than when there are new hearers. I can forgo a finely crafted introduction if I need to, for instance, and know that the people will track along.

    But don't misunderstand me y'all. While there is pressure to be engaging and clear for those who are nominal and to give due attention to this great Feast, this is still a natural, normal pressure. It doesn't keep me up or tie me in knots.

    As far as the prominence of preaching in the Lutheran Tradition, I feel that Luther was wrong in calling the sermon the chief part or center of the Divine Service. The pinnacle or center of the liturgy can only be the Holy Eucharist.

    I was aware that Orthodox clergy do not give as much attention to sermons as others do--even Roman Catholic, so I've heard--to the degree that some priests do not give sermons every Sunday. I still wondered if there would be more pressure to have "something good" on major Feasts.

    Thanks for all your comments thus far!

  18. orrologion said...

    On the Feast of Feasts, Pascha (Easter), the priest does not preach. The Paschal Sermon of St. John Chrysostom is called to be read.

  19. Rev. Eric J Brown said...

    Christmas Eve is in fact my most relaxing "sermon" of the year, because it isn't a "sermon" - the tradition is to have the children's program on Christmas Eve - and then I will speak for a few minutes afterwards (not even from the pulpit). I have not changed this custom yet.

    I generally will pick out one theme concerning Christmas and expound upon it - closer to what I would do at a bible study, although with a strong emphasis on the Gospel. And people learn from it - last year I had life long members come up to me and say, "Wow, I had never thought of that before."