push this up the hill three times a week, twice on sundays
Reading Time: 8 minutes (Zoltan Tasi.) Get pushin'.
Reading Time: 8 minutes

Hi and welcome back! We’ve been talking lately about Ed Litton and his tempest-in-a-teapot scandal: so-called SermonGate. Yes, the current president of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), Ed Litton, reused sermons from the previous SBC president, J.D. Greear. He did not attribute his source, either, which means he committed pastoral plagiarism. Yesterday, we touched on all the (wrong) reasons evangelicals think pastoral plagiarism happens — and why it actually does. Now, though, I want to talk about the scary reality of sermons. Sermon fatigue is very real for evangelical pastors, and it happens for such an important reason that evangelicals can’t possibly address it on any meaningful level. And today, I want to show you that reason.

push this up the hill three times a week, twice on sundays
(Zoltan Tasi.) Get pushin’.

My Pentecostal Bubble Bursts.

When I was a bright-eyed Pentecostal lass in college, I had friends all over the evangelical spectrum. We often visited each other’s churches. This was a very common practice that we all felt would give us a good overview of our end of Christianity.

One of those friends, Mike, would have been quite the trendy, hipster Millennial pastor if he’d only been born about 15 years later. All he would have needed were a couple of meaningful tattoos to show he had a past, and he’d have fit into any modern megachurch’s leadership team. As it was, he was a very new and different kind of evangelical to us: curly-haired, bold, rambunctious yet respectful, handsome and lively and tanned, with a variety of interests outside of church.

He attended a Maranatha church with a bunch of our other evangelical friends. I’d attended their church a couple of times, so naturally he attended mine one Sunday morning.

I thought the pastor offered a good sermon that day, personally. He had been, to use the Christianese, on fire. The altar call was accordingly rowdy. It was an intensely euphoric experience for those who “went forward” that day.

However, Mike wasn’t happy with it. Like, at all. As we left, he showed me his notebook. Unlike my church’s members, he took notes at sermons, it turned out. But he’d had a singular difficulty in taking notes for this sermon. All I could see on the notebook page was the word “BLOOD” written in various styles. Yes, the pastor had screamed “BLOOD!” at various points, but surely there had been more to take notes on?

No, apparently not.

This was my first real brush with a fellow evangelical who expected way more from sermons — and had been deeply disappointed with the one he’d heard from my church, one I’d thought was quite good really. It startled me quite a bit that we could have had such markedly different experiences.

What Sermons Are and How Churches Use Them.

Sermons are speeches that Christians utilize to illustrate and teach some concept about Christianity. The people who write and present sermons typically base them around a Bible verse, but not always. Usually, those people are clergy members, but not always. In evangelicalism, they are usually men as well.

The further we stray from progressive and mainline church flavors, the longer sermons seem to get — and the more excitable and less scholarly as well. In my experience in evangelicalism, sermons happen after all the church-business stuff does — announcements, prayer requests, interpersonal greetings, etc. Sunday morning services tended to be more scholarly and respectable by stuffier Christians’ standards, but Sunday nights were for blowing off accumulated steam, so they were usually really emotional and manipulative.

After sermons, church bands play songs (first very sad, then very active in feel if they want things to get rowdy), and the preacher makes an altar call.

The leaders of most evangelical churches are expected to craft sermons about three times a week — Sunday morning and evening, plus a midweek service. There’s leeway given for the midweek sermon, but Sunday sermons need to be good.

But there’s more than just time required to make sermons. Many evangelical churches expect sermons to be like term papers, with scholarly references, diagrams, and tons of Bible verses and college-level reflections upon them — but also to contain uplifting, inspirational, and motivational stories and anecdotes. Remember, congregations expect these papers thrice weekly.

That was the kind of sermon Mike had expected that day — but had not received.

Sermons Are Super Important, Say the People Making a Living With Sermons.

As usual, we see a lot of self-interest operating in Christianity when it comes to the importance of sermons. The people who literally make a living through the crafting of sermons certainly think sermons are extremely important to Christians everywhere.

(We see the same exact self-interest regarding prophecy and apologetics.)

So nobody should be surprised to see ministers insisting that sermons are absolutely essential.

Sermon Central (2001): A minister, Paul Fritz, offers us a sermon about the importance of sermons. First and foremost, his god commanded preachers to preach. Also, “preaching has great power, potential, and capacity to bring about change” in listeners. It also “offers great authority” to, I assume, the preachers themselves. However, he warns against misused and poor-quality preaching.

9Marks (2017): A minister, Josh Vincent, tells us that “Christians and non-Christians both need nothing less than the resurrected and living Christ.” Tall order! And they get this through sermons. Also, preaching teaches Christians about the Bible and how to apply it to their lives.

PRCA (2018): A minister, Rodney Kleyn, is careful to inform us that his enthusiastic endorsement of the importance of preaching comes from more than just him doing it for a living. (surejan.gif) He similarly leans on my god told me to do it but but but y’all, y’all, there’s also this other stuff. One major other reason he cites is that the preachers themselves need to preach sermons. However, he can’t articulate why that is beyond preachers preach, duh.

Focus Magazine (2019): A minister, Berry Kercheville, insists that only sinful fakey-fake Christians don’t like sermons. But also, sermons get boring if they fall into a “sameness rut.” But TRUE CHRISTIANS™ never dislike them. Sermons’ effects include greater faith, better performance of Christian virtues, and a boost to recruitment levels.

Ligonier (unknown, possibly 2020): More cuz the Mad Blood God of the Desert commanded us to do it, from a minister, H.B. Charles. He also sees preaching as a way to teach the Bible to congregations.

Gosh, it’d just super-suck if sermons didn’t actually do any of that, wouldn’t it?

Christian Fantasies About Sermons Meet Reality.

Ed Stetzer praised original sermons in 2008. He claimed they provided churches with a “truly prophetic voice” and “necessary development” for pastors. However, he was working off of Christians’ fantasies there — not reality.

Here’s the awful, awful reality of sermons:

Christianity is becoming more and more optional. Very few pastors actually possess the power to coerce compliance from unwilling congregations. If a pastor annoys congregants too much, they will fire that pastor or leave for one whose preaching they prefer more. Or they will become churchless believers by entirely opting out of church culture itself.

On the topic of sermons, a famous quote from Divided by Faith seared itself into my mind:

If they can go to either the Church of Meaning and Belonging, or the Church of Sacrifice for Meaning and Belonging, most people choose the former.

So in a great many ways, Christians themselves are consumers of the product that pastors sell. Pastors can rage against this reality or work with it. They can do both or neither, as they please. But it’s still a truth overshadowing their entire career. They must make their congregations happy, whatever “happy” means for each particular congregation. If they don’t, then their congregations will scoot them out the door for someone else — or abandon them.

What won’t happen is congregations accepting preached sermons they don’t like.

What also won’t happen is congregations changing markedly for the better thanks to preaching, growing in understanding of the Bible, or learning how to apply Christianity to their everyday lives.

In evangelicalism, those two points go double.

The Broken Roadmap: Sermon Edition.

Pastors live a double life. On one hand, they warble about how truly important sermons are. They take pride in particularly well-crafted ones. But on the other, they struggle with the knowledge of how little sermons actually accomplish or change.

They bristle at their suspicion that they’re simply entertainers. That they can’t actually bring anything new to the table anyway when it comes to interpretation of any Bible verses. That if they even tried to say something really different or new, their congregations would explode in fury at them.

Just check out what happened when an evangelical pastor tried to tell his church that he no longer believed in Hell as a destination for so-called sinners. Or what happened when a big-name evangelical leader hinted that he’d changed his mind about his tribe’s anti-gay culture war.

Christians can’t engage with this reality any more than they can any reality about their religion. To admit that sermons don’t actually do anything that ministers claim would be like admitting that no god animates the center of their faith. It’d be like admitting that their central mechanisms don’t work. That the roadmap is busted.

And y’all, that won’t happen. It can’t. The fantasy is way more important than anything in reality.

The One Time I Saw a Sermon Have ANY Impact on a Congregation’s Behavior.

This happened at my first Pentecostal church. (I wrote about this event in more detail here.)

After Sunday morning services, we liked to go out to a certain inexpensive all-you-can-eat Mexican buffet. But most of us acted like every restaurant server’s worst nightmare brought to life. Biff and I would always behave like proper guests and tip very well, but we were the only exceptions to that nightmare.

One day, the owner of that buffet called my pastor and told him that our church would not be welcome anymore unless we cleaned up our act. That owner dude was furious with us.

Well, that Sunday morning my pastor preached up a righteously-angry storm about what a bad witness our church was to those servers. I wasn’t even doing any of that stuff, and I still cringed out of my skin at his preaching!

And yes, the congregation 100% cleaned up its act as a result. I don’t know how long that change lasted, but for the rest of the time I attended that church at least, they were model restaurant patrons.

That was the one and only time I have ever in my life seen any church congregation change at all due to a sermon’s impact. But I don’t know how much it counts, since Pentecostals’ deep and abiding love of all-you-can-eat buffets is legendary for good reason.

The Unending Sermon of Sisyphus.

So. Instead of churches full of Christians growing and changing with preaching, I only saw constant examples of church congregations that agreed with everything the pastor said, sure — but they remained stone-cold hypocrites. I still see those examples, and so do countless other people (like these and these). Christians will sing to and praise Jesus with mouths full of the worst vitriol and cruelty toward others, and they’ll think nothing whatsoever of it.

When I think back to all the sermons on tape my first church sold — with people waiting outside in the lobby for the A/V volunteers to finish imprinting the newest tape after every service — and how little good all those sermons actually did for my churchmates, it still blows my mind.

I really can’t blame pastors for maybe thinking of sermons as the Rock of Sisyphus that they must push always up a hill, only to see it roll back down again. Nothing that they do will bring a congregation closer to godliness, compassion, or even intellectual growth.

Ultimately, it seems to me, sermons accomplish only one real thing:

They keep sermon-givers employed.

NEXT UP: Holy misplaced priorities, Batman! We’re circling around to a shocking display of them that we saw yesterday. See you tomorrow!

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...