By Jeff Brumley
The subject of preaching is often lost in today’s urgent talk about church decline, closure and relevance. Most of the buzz centers around embracing technology, social media, worship styles or whether to stay in or sell the building.
But what about homelitics? Where does the message from the pulpit fit into debates on “nones,” “dones” and the Millennials? Do those groups care about sermons as passionately as they are said to care about music and missional service?
Direct experience and research shows that indeed they do, and a few recent developments seem to prove that while preaching is evolving, it’s still considered important and effective.
Among them is the Lilly Endowment, which has issued several large grants to U.S. seminaries — including Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary — to strengthen preaching.
Another is Luis Palau, who will join other evangelists for four days of worship, song — and preaching — in New York City in February.
But it isn’t just the high-profile preachers who are putting a lot of thought into preaching, especially when it comes to reaching young people.
‘It was very powerful’
“Millennials tell me that what matters are not preachers’ degrees or where they went to school, but that they are authentic,” said Bob Ballance, the senior minister at Pine Street Church — formerly First Baptist — in Boulder.
The once-dwindling congregation has experienced a resurgence in recent years as the American Baptist church has become a magnet for Millennials.
It’s vital to that generation that sermons not attempt to pander to them with awkward references to social media or references to the latest films or television shows.
They’re also not interested in the basic “three points and a poem” sermon model, Ballance said.
“They want real stories from life,” he said. “They want sermons that really matter — not just a devotional thought.”
Preaching to an increasingly young congregation has required a change in his approach, Ballance said.
He left traditional preaching behind in the mid-’90s and started incorporating technology like PowerPoint.
That’s evolved to using film clips when appropriate, and has also tried passing out pen and paper to have congregants describe their image of God.
“I was shocked — I got 70 written, prophetic responses,” he said. “It wasn’t just me talking, it was the congregation. It was very powerful.”
Ballance added that his sermons usually run about 15 to 20 minutes.
They have also gone by different names.
“We used to call them ‘reflections,’ and sometimes ‘meditations,’” he said. “In the last couple of months we are back to ‘sermon.’”
It all reflects that the purpose of the sermon isn’t necessarily to evangelize, Ballance said.
“It’s a time of guided reflections — it’s not me having all the answers,” he said.
‘Still drawing a crowd’
The tension pastors face in the modern pulpit is between relevance and irrelevance, said Brett Younger, associate professor of preaching at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology.
And both positions can be challenging, he said.
Being irrelevant means speaking truth that many people are not interested in, he said.
On the other side, preachers may stretch so far toward relevancy that they offer messages that are little more than self-help tips for becoming better in the culture. And it works.
“Look at Joel Osteen — he’s still drawing a crowd,” Younger said.
Preachers trying to convey the gospel message have yet another challenge: avoiding overly religious language.
“If you use religious language without time to flesh it out, then people have trouble hearing it,” Younger said. “But if you completely dump it, you may not be telling the story of Christ any more.”
It’s why, for the first time in hundreds of years, that sermons are actually getting longer, he added. That’s occurring because Christian education has moved from Sunday school to pulpits.
“Teaching is its only function in a lot of settings,” Younger said of preaching.
Whatever form or technique that is used, sermons should be teaching about topics that hit people where they live.
“Millennials will tell you they want authenticity and reality” in sermons,” he said. “They will tell you they want someone to talk about things that matter ultimately.”
‘A sea change’ in preaching
Helping students learn how to preach in ways that are faithful and engaging with congregations is one of the hoped-for benefits of the $500,000 grant from the Lilly Endowment, said Hulitt Gloer, professor of Christian scriptures at Truett Seminary.
Gloer is one of the faculty members who will oversee portions of the grant, which will be used to create peer-learning and peer-coaching opportunities for students.
It was Lilly that approached Truett about the grant — as it did seven other schools — concerned about the quality of preaching in American churches, Gloer said.
Of course, Truett jumped at the opportunity.
“We’re always looking for better approaches … and opportunities to do some experimentation and develop better methods of pedagogy,” Gloer said.
The basics will still be taught, but in innovative ways.
To help with voice and projection, preaching students will interview drama department people. Preparation, discovering and using resources and developing topics will be covered.
But Truett has long been engaged in helping its students find their way in an ever-changing church and cultural environment, Gloer said.
A major consideration is how faculty prepares students to preach before technologically savvy generations.
“This is a big question in homiletics in general,” Gloer said. “What does this sea change mean for the preaching event?”