Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

It was only when I reached my twenties that I came fully to understand that the center of the liturgy is the Eucharist and not, as I had been led to conclude as a child, the sermon. Even today, when I like to think I have gone well beyond “mere Protestantism,” to paraphrase C. S. Lewis, I place more spiritual emphasis on the sermon than is probably good for my soul. In some six decades of churchgoing, I have listened to scores, if not hundreds, of preachers, many of them over extended periods of time. I have heard great preaching, awful preaching, and everything in between-though I am happy to report that on balance I have encountered more good preaching than bad.

In my childhood, it was difficult to distinguish the good preaching from the bad, partly because children do not so much judge sermons as endure them in a pre-critical fashion, partly because the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) pastors of that era all followed a certain formula in preaching that made their sermons sound more or less interchangeable. The staple of LCMS preaching was the three-point sermon: you have sinned and by that sin merited eternal separation from God; Christ died to save you from the consequences of your sins; you should in grateful response strive to live in obedience to God’s will.

Points one and three typically received less elaboration than point two. I grew up assuming that all sermons necessarily include a full exposition of our inability to make recompense for sin and of Christ’s substitutionary atonement for that sin on the Cross. The emphasis throughout was on a rigorously precise understanding of the gospel as grace alone through faith alone—which, we were given to understand, is what distinguished Lutheran doctrinal purity from sin-obsessed fundamentalism on the one side and works-beguiled Romanism on the other.

As I grew into adolescence, I came to regard good preaching as that which could bring the three-point formula to life. In time, I became impatient with the formula itself—though later still, as I found myself in congregational settings far removed from Missouri Synod certainties, I sometimes looked back on that formula with a certain nostalgia. Better a pat orthodoxy than inventive heresy.

One of the most intelligent, thoughtful, and personally appealing pastors I ever encountered had just one problem as a preacher. Somewhere along in seminary, he had lost his faith, but, for whatever reasons, had became a pastor anyway. Since he could not with integrity preach grace, he preached instead an angry moralism. He specialized in sermons denouncing his congregants’ comfortable piety and placid conformity. On one occasion, he announced that only those who were certain they were going to transform their lives should avail themselves of the Eucharist that Sunday. Most of the congregation, instead of reacting with outrage at his denunciations, took perverse pleasure in them. “Thanks, pastor, that’s just what we needed to hear,” ran the typical response, of course, drove him to utter frustration. He finally left the pastorate to go into counseling.

A pastor need not be a heretic to be a bad preacher. Laziness will do. “So tell me pastor,” a friend of mine once inquired of a preacher after church, “what did you do with the time you saved from sermon preparation?” Poorly prepared sermons often make for incoherent ones as well. There was one pastor, an occasional substitute preacher at the congregation I then belonged to, who I heard preach just four times, and on each agonizing occasion he entered the pulpit full of confidence and empty of theme or point. The last time, he went on for forty-five minutes—it was not only the worst sermon I ever heard but the longest—blindly in search of a topic or even of consecutive thoughts. As the congregation’s stirrings edged toward open mutiny, he groped for an ending. Finally, he hit on the following (which, of course, had nothing to do with anything that had preceded it): “Well, next Tuesday is election day. I don’t think I can vote for George Bush. But, then, I don’t think I could vote for any Republican. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

The length of that sermon was as unusual as its mindless political conclusion. Few Lutheran pastors today preach more than twenty minutes, a considerable reduction from the twenty-five to thirty-five minutes that was common in my childhood. Many pastors, indeed, are quite careful as to the length of their sermons. My current pastor, for example—whose fine preaching I have noted earlier in these pages—preaches, Sunday after Sunday, precisely eleven-minute sermons. Not ten minutes, not twelve minutes, but eleven. (I know this is so because of my obsessive-compulsive habit of timing sermons—a habit inherited from my father that, try as I might, I cannot shake, even though I’m aware it drives preachers crazy.) Fortunately, the high quality of the sermons at our parish is as predictable as their length.

Good preaching comes, of course, in a variety of styles: long and short, plain and rhetorically elevated, interpretive and narrative. Theological sophistication helps, but it is not the critical ingredient. Few beginning pastors, even those with the best seminary education, are excellent preachers. They lack the emotional intelligence, the knowledge of the soul, that develops only with experience of life.

Much of that knowledge comes from suffering, experienced in oneself or apprehended in the suffering of others. It is no accident that two of the most effective preachers I have known were recovering alcoholics. Another outstanding preacher taught me that it is invariably the case that to come to know someone well is to become aware of some fundamental pain or regret in that person’s life. Nathaniel Hawthorne, America’s most perceptive nineteenth-century author, understood that what essentially binds humanity together—even as, paradoxically, it separates us one from the other—is “the secret of the heart,” the often unacknowledged experience of sin and remorse that is our common fate.

The greatest preachers are those whom life has humbled. (I have on more than one occasion felt the effect of an otherwise admirable sermon ruined by the sense that the pastor had been told once too often what a fine preacher he was.) One wants a pastor who knows what it means to pray, “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

Which is not to say that one wants preaching whose primary intention is to heal wounded psyches or offer assurance that things will, after all, turn out all right. Good preaching engages, in Lutheran terms, the dialectical conversation of sin and grace. “Preach grace!” is the necessary imperative addressed to all who enter the pulpit, but grace without sin dissolves into Hallmark theology. The essence of our fault—our own most grievous fault—is that we are, as Augustine noted, turned in on ourselves. Good preaching directs us out of our crippling self-preoccupation and toward the promises of the gospel. It is from there that injunctions to live well can persuasively begin.

For all preachers, even the very best, there are moments when inspiration fails. On those occasions, they could do worse than consider artful variations on the traditional three-point sermon. I remember, from many years ago, the farewell sermon of an LCMS pastor of the old school. His pastoral career, he acknowledged, had been a modest one, but he wanted us to know that he left the pulpit with a sense of satisfaction. “I have always,” he said, “preached Christ crucified.” That was all, and that was enough.