The sermons I’ve liked least, congregants have liked most.
Because what I value as a preacher is often at odds with what congregants value.
For me, I value: Excellence. Fluidity. Choice Words and Phrases. Consistency: nothing deviates from my plan or point. No stuttering, no wandering, nothing unpredictable or unexpected.
But the congregation often values something else: Electricity. Authenticity. Spontaneity. Genuine Connection. A moment being shared, for the first time, together. In other words: congregants value the sense that their presence is what makes a sermon work.
In my white protestant context, we tend to think of sermons as a solitary performance. But sermons are more like a ballroom dance. In one sense, we both need to put the work into knowing our part. In another, we need to plug those memorized parts into the current our partner is sending – every moment aware of their pace, thought, pleasure, displeasure, knowledge of the dance, etc.
Sermons that are solitary performances feel pre-scripted. They are memorized, canned, dictated from a piece of paper. They produce what I value: polish, articulation, safety. But they fail to produce what congregants value: electricity. Participation. Connection.
We have to know the dance, yes. But we also have to hold it before our congregation loosely, letting their reactions, their eyes, their nonverbal (or verbal) signs play the other part. We need to be intimately familiar with our content, yet ready for a two-person event, not a solitary performance.
We need to say on Sunday morning: “Your presence here is what makes this sermon possible. You are an integral partner in this sermon. I’m watching, listening to, and feeling what you bring to this room. Not, it’s not perfect. But we are in this together.”
That’s what makes sermons electric.