In this holy season of Lent, when we should be focused on a prayerful and thoughtful approach to our faith, when we should have the courage to examine our faithfulness, I find myself in a difficult place. For the first time in a very long time, Lent is feeling very heavy and dark.
A few clergy colleagues and I share leadership of a Wednesday Bible Study, the “Bible Bunch.” This group includes other United Church of Christ churches, as well as a United Methodist Church. For this year’s Lenten theme my colleagues and I devised our own program: “Why We Do What We Do and What It Means To Us.” Individual sessions included preaching, singing, stewardship, mission, etc.
I led the first session, on preaching. We had about twelve to fifteen people in attendance—most, if not all, life-long church-goers. My first question—not intended as a trick question—asked those gathered around the table to share a story about a memorable sermon. The sermon didn’t have to involve one of the preachers at the table. I asked about a sermon that made them think differently about an issue, or about their faith, or about a Bible story—a sermon that spoke to them in a special way.
Silence. A long, uncomfortable silence.
When someone finally spoke up, when the silence just got to be too difficult to bear, the person shared a comment about the general preaching of one of the preachers at the table. Her sermons, her style of preaching, was “good,” maybe even “very good.” Others chimed in along the same lines. They generally liked the preaching of the clergy at the table, and the preaching styles of some of our predecessors.
But none of them could speak in any particular way about any particular sermon. Nothing.
By way of contrast, the following week’s topic was singing and they had plenty to say about that. I thought about those early settlers to New England, who didn’t allow any singing during worship services except for the singing of psalms. They knew that singing was dangerously distracting . . . .
I’ve been an ordained minister for almost twenty years, and active in the leadership of church for almost twenty-five years. It’s not easy to think that one’s vocation having so little impact.
And, more than that, I find in that uncomfortable silence a big clue into our shrinking congregations. If those who attend church regularly cannot talk in a meaningful way about anything other than music, how can we possibly think that others will want to join us? If people who attend worship over the course of most of their lives cannot come up with even one little nugget of a sermon that offered something meaningful, is it a mystery that so many have left or are not inclined to give church a try?
It’s not that I think my preaching is completely without value. I do receive thoughtful comments and feedback on occasion. These suggest that there are people in the congregation who are listening and paying attention. And, there were a few comments offered during this particular Bible Bunch where participants reflected on times when they talked about a sermon, with a friend or family member, after the worship experience.
The problem is that they cannot remember specific content in any meaningful way. Those moments of feeling connected to a sermon are fleeting. In essence, sermons are not experienced as transformative. There is nothing akin to a moment of “being saved.”
There is, perhaps, no more profound challenge for good church people in our cluster of churches in Central Maine and in churches like ours: to learn to speak personally of faith, what it means and why it matters, and to say something meaningful about why someone should give up brunch or sports practice or even household chores and to come to church instead.
We can’t “transform” the behavior of others if we haven’t experienced our own transformation.