The Sermon in Disrepute

The following is reprinted by permission from THE REFORMED JOURNAL, April 1972. Copyright 1972 William B. Eerdmans Publishing Dr. Company, Dr. John J. Timmerman is a professor of English at Calvin College.

I grew up as a minister’s son in what may now be called the golden age of the ministry in the Christian Reformed Church. My father enjoyed respect, confidence, authority, and affection. He was a dignified man when the ministry enjoyed great dignity. He meticulously prepared his sermons, which possessed both art and insight. They were listened to by intelligent audiences, even though many had little formal education. He felt it his duty to proclaim what he considered the full counsel of God as far as his abilities permitted. The minister and audience constituted an harmonious unit. None felt the urge to muscle in, share rare wisdom and searing hangups or personal encounters with the Lord. The audience felt instructed, inspired, and cleansed. Audience participation would have been regarded as intrusive, unmannerly, and unprofitable as we would regard it in a good play, where no one but a fool would rise to reinterpret Macbeth. That day, to my deep personal regret, seems to be about finished.

Many people seem to relish the new day coming, the day of audience participation, the day when the worm will turn and ultimately devour the lark. Some want not only attenuation of the minister’s role, but are ready to scrap every custom about worship. This, I suppose, includes the role of the clergyman, who will become some sort of moderator or facilitator.

He will be engaged in arranging the moveable seats so we can see each other better; he will be busy hustling about with hymnbooks and contemporary ballads, patiently tolerating seven rambling opinions on neighborhood projects, ordering the holding of hands and the letting go of hands, seeing to it that everyone is listening actively, while preparing the next spontaneous remark, plugging people into new programs, guiding the mass analysis of texts, and summing up the consequences. Having done all this:

At last he rose, and twitched his mantle blue
Tomorrow to fresh fields and pastures new.

Audience participation is the sparkling word today, but I don’t like audience participation in the exposition of texts in Sunday services. Some say the single voice in front is a bore and a drone, but are seventeen bores any better? The participators arc as likely to be neurotic exhibitionists as mature and gifted saints. If a group wishes to discuss the sermon afterward, and the minister wishes to participate, that is another and probably a profitable matter, but to invite instant opinion on the meaning of texts seems absurd to me. A well-prepared and substantial sermon to which I actively listen means infinitely more to me than comments even by gifted people, who can’t be masters of everything.

The Sunday sermons are the most significant and often most pleasurable parts of the Sunday services to me. The poetic calibre of many hymns is slight; the responsive readings in uneven pace and frequent dissonance are not always an inspiration. Many are so intent on reading words that words is all they hear. I greatly prefer a trained and articulate reader. If the sermon disappears, a fine and rewarding experience will vanish, and I shall be poorer for it. Discussion of Scripture on Sunday by many voices holds no attraction for me, There are suitable societies for such activity, where many of the severest critics of sermonic exposition never appear. Finally, I fear that if the sermon goes, the audience will diminish too, but maybe that is what some members want—no organized church services but little cells where congenial spirits meet to talk to each other about the religious life.