Monday, March 26, 2007

Thinking about sermons

Linguist Friend's comment on the sermon got me to thinking about what makes a sermon "user-friendly". And he's right about too many complicated messages making it challenging. He's careful about his language and tosses in some complimentary words to soften the critique, which I appreciate. And it's not a bad review, just a useful thought which he wants to be received in a constructive way. Thanks, LF, I understand what you're saying.

(An aside: I know of friends in seminary who refused to listen to any critique of their Sunday sermons---from spouse or friend or enemy---until at least Tuesday. At least one marriage broke up over this issue when one spouse couldn't keep it to himself.)

What makes a sermon user-friendly? When I'm listening to a sermon, it's important that it touch something personal in me. I need to relate to the topic personally. It's also helpful if the speaker reveals something about him/herself. If I get a chance to participate in some way, I go into the topic more deeply. If I have a chance to laugh or cry, that's good. For me, a sermon is successful if I am emotionally engaged. That isn't true for everyone, I know, and I wish I knew more about what makes a sermon user-friendly to people who are different from me.

Consequently, that's how I write and preach sermons. It's most important to me that my listeners stay awake and engaged, whether I gauge that by the looks on their faces, by their laughter or sighs, by their willingness to speak out if invited to speak spontaneously.

I mentioned last night that I felt deflated at the end of the day. I felt that even though the sermon (complex as it was in message) was a great success by my "engagement" standards. Lots of people wanted to share their "joy in the earth" stories; they bubbled over with sharing, so I know that touched them. I think the deflated feeling was related to missing individuals who, for whatever reason, didn't come to the service.

Parishioners probably don't realize how much the minister misses them when they're not present. In a small congregation, an absence leaves a large hole and it's not always immediately clear why someone is absent.

The minister may interpret the absence in a number of ways. Most often it's an unavoidable absence, but ego also gets in the way and throws out reasons like "something else was more important" or "they didn't like the topic" or "they're not supportive of me". None of these may be accurate, but ego throws them in there anyhow!

I try to resist the ego response. In this community of largely retired folks, many people travel in the winter. A nice day (as it was yesterday) calls people into their gardens and at 4 p.m. they're not ready to clean up and come to church. There are many logical, good reasons why people don't make it to worship on a Sunday.

But oh how I wish people would put their faith community on the top of their Sunday list, attending services even when it's not convenient, even when the topic isn't their thing, even when they're mad at the minister, even when they're tired from traveling.

How satisfying it would be to look out at the gathered community and not wonder where so and so is today, if this one is still gardening, if that one forgot about the usher responsibility, if others are disappointed in the topic or the minister, if the diminished attendance is a bad sign of something.

If you are a member of a faith community, know this: the minister misses you when you are absent. The other members of the community miss you when you are absent. The worship experience is diminished because you are not there to lend your voice, to hand out hymnals, to offer a friendly greeting.

If you are a leader in a faith community, know this: the minister needs you to be there on Sunday to help meet the needs of the congregation. The other leaders need you there to feel the camaraderie of leadership. The members need you there to feel your commitment to the faith community. The worship experience is diminished because you are not there to model how Unitarian Universalists approach worship, think about human living, and take their covenant with the faith community seriously.

Okay, I did it again, turned a reflection on sermons into more of a two or three part message. Sorry, LF, but this is a blog, not a worship service!

4 comments:

Joel said...

But oh how I wish people would put their faith community on the top of their Sunday list, attending services even when it's not convenient, even when the topic isn't their thing, even when they're mad at the minister, even when they're tired from traveling.

See., if you folks wouuld just make it a mortal sin to skip services, like us, you'd see a lot more regular attendance. :)

ms. kitty said...

Yes, it's true, many of those who come erratically are recovering Catholics.

LinguistFriend said...

Kit, you read my comments quite aaccurately; one can't deceive a pro (of course, it was not my intent to do so). It is always interesting and often very illuminating to hear your reflections on the impulses that go back and forth between the members and ministers of congregations. You probably got a head start on that in listening to your father's comments, plus training and experience in counselling, which together must have made it possible for you to get much more than some people out of the pastoral parts of your ministerial training.
LinguistFriend

ms. kitty said...

You know, LF, I originally thought of Ms. Kitty's as just a lark, a place to be funny and to set down random thoughts in writing. I didn't realize at the time that I would find friends this way, that I might offer something meaningful, that I could help people know what it feels like to be in the role of a minister.

I know that when I was a layperson, I did not have a clue as to what it might feel like to be in such a position of leadership. No minister I knew personally talked about it. Even my dad was silent on the pain he suffered because of his congregants' attitudes and behavior.

It would have been helpful to me, as a layperson, to know how my behavior affected the minister. If I had known, I would have been gentler in my critiques of ministers who served me.

I did learn a lot from my dad; he had a gentle charisma that served him and his congregants well. He had little real seminary education but he made up for it in passion for his calling. He wasn't such a great preacher (at least, that's my recollection--but I was a kid, what did I know?) but he was a great man.