A new member of the church I go to punctuates every sentence of our pastor's sermons with an "Amen!" or "Hallelujah!" This drives me nuts. I'm a little hard of hearing--okay, deaf as a fence post--and I can't concentrate on what I'm trying to hear because of all the racket this woman makes. Someone (not me and not a relative) also reacted negatively. She brought the matter up to the pastor. "Can't you make her stop?" she asked.
Surprisingly, the pastor demurred. He said he liked getting "the feedback" and suggested that our congregation needed to develop a little "cultural flexibility." What I think he really meant was that he was weary of looking out at our stony Mainline faces and found this woman's whoops exciting and affirming. It is human nature, after all, to enjoy a little applause--and he was finally getting a bit.
What our pastor overlooks is that not everything he says is strictly golden. He could say "peas peas, peas peas, eating goober peas, isn't it delightful, eating goober peas" and he'd get a "Praise Jesus!" from this old gal. Into every life a little rain must fall, there is plenty of gravel in a gold mine, and some of his sermons are, well...some sermons are better than others.
I think I understand some of what pastors go through. They remind me of baseball pitchers: everything they do is watched, second-guessed, and scored. What pressure! But I've been listening to sermons for more than 50 years now. That's about 2600 sermons, not counting ones by televangelists who popped up on hotel TVs, or the ad hoc worship or prayer service sermons that happened by chance. Some of these sermons have been pretty good, some of them bad, and more than a few have been just plain awful.
Adding to pastoral pressure is the problem of members who are not always inspired by sermons that emphasize what they already know. The problem isn't that members disagree on any essential point. On the contrary, they most often do agree: "God is Good, God is great, God is eternal" surely, definitely, absolutely. But pastors preaching to the choir seldom grab the choir's full attention. I don't think it is the choir's fault.
I, for example, am utterly convinced of the existence of God and there is nothing that can convince me that He does not exist. I am certain that God is all Good, the Creator of all things, and that God will not abandon me after death. There is nothing that can change my mind about these characteristics of God. Consequently...
...I drift a bit when a sermon tries to convince me of God's existence, His Goodness, His power, and His steadfast love. I know these things to be true and unchanging no matter how eloquently the pastor delivers the message. Sure, it is better to hear an entertaining sermon than a boring sermon, but we should never mistake the medium for the message. The dullest sermon cannot stop me from loving God--nor can the most brilliant sermon increase my love of God. I don't need to be entertained or dazzled into faithfulness.
Rather more annoying are sermons that warn me of attacks on my faith. No scientific discovery can derail my faith in God. I am not afraid of science, nor do I fear its conclusions and theories. No government or political party or law can overrule my faith in God. I am not afraid of the government, and I do not require its assistance or vigilance to be faithful to my God. No education--primary, secondary, or postgraduate--can teach my faith away. I am not afraid of education and I thank God for making us curious and capable of learning.
Sermons that inspire these fears--especially if they are delivered Sunday after Sunday--simply drive mature and faithful people away from church. Yes, the devil is scary, but what a spectacular loser he is when compared to the Holy Spirit. A good sermon compounds our interest in God's gifts and celebrates our acceptance of them. No one gets scared into heaven, and it is annoying and insulting when a preacher does not know this.
The best sermon I heard was by my mother and I haven't even included it in the approximately 2600 official sermons I've heard. We were out walking on a city street and saw a bum stumbling around. I guess I was about 8 or 9 years old. "What a bum!" I laughed.
"You better watch it," she said. "Maybe that's Jesus in disguise. What if you hurt his feelings?"
And so it is that I will try and love that noisy Hallelujah yodeler sitting at the end of my pew. Maybe she'll get me to loosen up a little. My mother would like that.