Say the word “sermon” and the average person doesn’t get too thrilled. In fact for a lot of people the word is only used as a pejorative (as in, “You can spare me the sermon, OK?”). But consider the sermon in its true sense – the message or homily or whatever you choose to call that which is taught aloud on a regular basis to a corporate church gathering. It’s not a popular word, and it’s not a popular concept. Maybe that’s not entirely bad. If it were, then by now we’d have had to witness a nauseating reality show competition in which young preachers go one at a time & America texts in its vote for the best sermon.
But to the degree that the sermon has a bad rap, whose fault is it? The sermon is one thing that is definitely not in short supply. America in particular is a land of 10,000 sermons, in just about any given week, and with a vast array of differences between them. A 72 hour trip around the internet would show you an endless matrix of church and other websites with all the sermons you could sample in every bit of free time you have. If I were Dr. Seuss my title for this would be “Oh the Sermons You’ll Hear.”
While a number of people in the present secularized society have only heard snippets of sermons, or have only a distant memory of sermons they heard as children, those with particular interest in the thinking and doing of churches realize that there are more species of sermon than of insect living in your backyard. Below is my own catalog of many (maybe most?) of the different kinds or types of sermons preached on a regular basis somewhere not too far from any of us. It is a homiletical parade of the good, the bad, and the ugly. As you move down the list you will see that I begin with more standard fare but then later I get to some of the more bizarre and even obnoxious kinds of sermons, where I include some links to examples that you will find entertaining and/or disturbing.
On to the Carnival of Sermons …
The Expository Sermon: Verse-by-Verse
I begin with the ancient standard, the time honored, the historically preeminent, and the unfortunately not nearly as popular as it once was: verse-by-verse exposition. It is still the sermon of choice for a great many of the most serious and devout. It’s a harder sell, though, for the masses today, since it demands more of the listener, moves more slowly and carefully, seeming to the short attention spans of today like a boring and tedious study of words and ideas that requires too much detailed concentration on the text and its meaning.
The Expository Sermon: Passages & Narratives
Not every expository sermon is necessarily of the verse-by-verse variety, so I thought this deserving of its own category. Sermons can still be very text-based but with a wider view. Some of the “books within the book” do not lend themselves as much to verse-by-verse, like Old Testament narratives, wisdom literature and exotic apocalyptic visions. Much as in the case of the difference between literal word-for-word translations vs. thought for thought (“dynamic equivalence”) translations, sometimes an exegesis and exposition that is not merely one-word-at-a-time (or even one-verse-at-a-time) is more appropriate and effective in communication of what is in those words (and verses).
The Theological / Doctrinal Sermon
Sure to shrink a crowd these days, sermons of this kind would hardly even be understood by a lot of modern church-goers. The language would at best seem vaguely familiar while arcane, and at worst completely foreign. A friend of mine said he once used the word “supralapsarian” in a sermon on salvation and the Fall, and afterward someone asked him, “What was that ‘super-cali-fragilistic’ thing you talked about?” The fact is you’ll be hard pressed to hear a sermon that even includes much overt theology, let alone one that emphasizes or prioritizes it.
The Apologetics Sermon
For this sermon type the Christmas message would likely be on the historical existence of Jesus and maybe astronomical proof of the appearance of the star. At Easter it would be a defense of the resurrection. Often philosophical, regularly featuring evidences for Christian beliefs, and naturally emphasizing arguments in contemporary debates like creation & design over blind evolution, the sanctity of life, marriage, and the family, etc. For this kind of sermon defending the truth is paramount and arming or equipping people is the goal.
The Current Issues Sermon
Some preachers keep up with everything going on and make it the theme of or at least the launching point of their sermons. Consider how many sermons included a reference to or take-off on “Y2K” on the last Sunday of the year 1999. This could be broad enough to encompass news, politics, social events, trends, entertainment, etc. In the old days the adage was about having ‘the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other,’ but today’s equivalent would have to include several other types of media carrying the significant news and topics of the moment.
The Therapeutic Sermon
We used to call it “self help” and before that “felt needs,” but the focus is on the common everyday problems of people and offering solutions for them, given with an energetic encouragement that these problems can and will be solved. Some refer to the message as the ‘Gospel of Self-Esteem’. As popular now as perhaps ever (Osteen isn’t hurting for members any more than Oprah is hurting for viewers), the appeal of the message is its practical value to help bring you relief, to help resolve your relationship problems, to give your stressed and troubled psyche some healing, maybe even give you some wisdom and advice to assist your financial woes. This phenomenon can be seen as the Christian version of what is in the wider culture of endless life-coaches offering strategies and products. With a nod back to Norman Vincent Peale’s “positive thinking” and Robert Schuller’s “possibility living”, these sermons key on those Bible verses that will provide the recipe to make the ‘Chicken Soup for your Soul.’ They are practical, and usually given with lots of “you can do it” kind of encouragement. Part pep-talk and part promise that God will help, heal, restore, etc., for so many people in our society with so many issues, these sermons command attention. Their popularity is the reason so many people continue to baffle me by pointing to teachers like Joyce Meyer as their main spiritual guides in life (her teaching also includes a jolt of prosperity teaching – see below).
The Charismatic Sermon
Outsiders consider these the most entertaining, and the extreme version – mostly a stereotype – might include snake handling and people jumping out of their wheelchairs after getting Holy-Ghost slapped on the head. This kind of sermon often displays very little substance and sometimes even a dose of heresy, or at least some weird ideas made up on the spot during the preacher’s rant (especially if it’s being ‘revealed’ on the spot – see the “Free Association” sermon on this list). Usually the preacher roams, yells and sweats, but not always. He (or she, since in this case it might sometimes be a woman) may break into tongues now and again, and will almost certainly call for plenty of ‘amens’ and ‘hallelujahs’ along the way. The level of ‘charisma’ is a spectrum (mild to extreme) and can be relative to people’s experience. Some people think a raised or clapping hand makes a church charismatic, while those who have spent hours in the throes of ‘Toronto blessing’ type pandemonium will probably have a much higher standard for what counts as charismatic. This category can be confusing since “charismatic” can refer either to the theology of the sermon or the style in which it is delivered. Not all Holy Ghost hollerin’ is theologically charismatic, and not all of those who hold to charismatic doctrine jump, sweat and dance down the aisles.
The Prosperity Sermon
The much discussed and (rightly) maligned sermon that proffers the ‘Prosperity Gospel’ is its own category. Don’t fuse or blend it with the traditional charismatic sermon, because they are distinct. While most who preach it happen also to advocate a charismatic emphasis on miracles and gifts, along with a style that fits charismatic worship, not everyone does. Once again, Osteen sometimes teaches something of a soft version of this in his own unique way, and his is not in the traditional charismatic stylings. What really sets this sermon apart is its clear focus on “health and wealth” as we sometimes say. Unfortunately this is the kind of sermon that so many around the world have heard as their example of Christian preaching, thanks to the reach of television stretching back a few decades to when those advocating this began to make use of that medium. Televangelists have found that this sermon has cash value, and since the message itself justifies and encourages wealth, they have gone hog wild. For many years people with cable have been subject to witnessing this kind of message as they channel surf. Sometimes it is more of a pitch than a sermon, filmed not in front of a congregation but in a small infomercial studio. It includes all sorts of bizarre gimmicks (see Peter Popoff’s “Miracle Manna” as an example). By now everyone knows this twisted heresy about speaking increase into your life, sowing seeds of faith, reaping harvests and hundred-fold returns – all specifically financial references, of course. Your faith is a spiritual power wielded through the instrument of your tongue to unlock riches and perfect health, forcing God’s hand in a sense, making him bend the metaphysical elements with your very words so that they yield what you want in this life. It is the Christianized version of what the larger pop-spiritual world has seen in books like “The Secret.”
The Anecdotal Sermon
You may wonder why this is its own kind of sermon, but I’ve heard enough of them through the years that I think it deserves its own title. While most sermons may include anecdotes – little stories told about this or that, often personal accounts – this is a sermon that features one or more of them as the main course. Often those speaking to youth groups do this. A personal story grabs and keeps attention, so it may help hold short attention spans. But I’ve heard effective speakers also use lots of anecdotes such that the stories, taken all together, end up comprising a large portion of the entire message. The stories are compelling and often begin with lines like, “I was traveling on a plane recently and sat next to a man who …” If it is a well-travelled popular preacher he may tell a lot of stories about that itself, as in, “Recently I was speaking to a large group in a city I will not name, and afterwards a woman came up to me …”
The General Spirituality Sermon
In many of the more theologically liberal churches, often representing some of the old mainline denominations, you hear sermons that could easily be given at a social gathering of any kind. We can call it “general spirituality” or even borrow the term that sociologist Christian Smith coined to describe the diluted semi-Christian belief system of so many American teenagers: “moralistic therapeutic deism.” These sermons are least likely to offend any of the members of a diverse audience. They are ecumenically friendly (“non-sectarian” as they might like to say) by keeping things so broad that most Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant people could mostly agree with what is being said. For that matter, many Muslims, Mormons and Buddhists could agree with much of it too. They tend not to inspire all that much in the hearers, who are most likely to compliment such sermons with things like “What a lovely message” and “That was very nice.”
The Academic Sermon
A statistical anomaly, this kind of sermon still gets preached in a few places. It is a now unpopular style that was once heard in certain denominations, the sermon sounding a lot like a lecture. It is a well-researched sermon, with lots of preparation. It has solid content, a diet of meat without a lot of empty carbs. You might get extensive word etymologies, exquisite historical detail, robust background, and probably good quotations from ancient sources, modern scholars and maybe Shakespeare now and again. The only problem is most people today can’t hang with something like this for more than 4 minutes. It is subject to the charge of being elitist, ivory-tower theology. I remember after a sermon I once preached in my younger days a nice man said to me afterwards, “You do know this isn’t a seminary class, right?”
The Prophetic or Apocalyptic Sermon
Very much like the “Current Events” Sermon already described, only with a determined dedication to interpreting the end times. Often camping out in the more difficult prophetic or apocalyptic writings that other preachers tend to avoid (e.g., Ezekiel’s wheel in the sky, John the Revelator’s seven bowls of judgment, etc.), but also quite adept at finding prophetic threads in everything from proverbs to hymns to parables, it is from among the ranks of these preachers that embarrassing headline-grabbing rapture predictions usually originate. They keep a finger in the Book of Daniel and an eye on the always tumultuous events in the Middle East. If you want to be especially effective at this kind of sermon, you have to learn to pronounce Israel as “Izrul” John Hagee-style, and refer to it at least 50 times per sermon.
The Spontaneous Free-Association Sermon
Nearly every sort of sermon involves some level of planning and preparation. At the very least there will likely be a main point or points; some will use notes, some may even write out a full manuscript. But there is a special kind of sermon that dispenses will all of this. Maybe you’ve heard one. It is a stream-of-consciousness meandering or “letting the Spirit lead” journey with the destination unknown even to the speaker. A typical candidate for this is either a very old, experienced long-tenured preacher who is perfectly comfortable just “talkin’ to” his people from the pulpit every week; or it is a certain kind of charismatic preacher who lets the Spirit give him the utterance on the spot. I have heard preachers like this read a text and then just walk around for the next 25 minutes making it up as they go, none of it having much to do with the text, the sermon itself not really having an aim or a point. But whether he’s speaking directly from his heart or talking directly out of his [something else], in my experience there is rarely much benefit to the hearer outside of some mild amusement and, depending on the natural gifts of the speaker, a level of entertainment. At its very worst it can seem almost like gibberish (as exemplified in this really bad lip reading gag).
The ‘Giving a Speech’ Sermon
The direct opposite of free-association is a carefully written script. We are all familiar with this style of public reading due to political speeches and papers read at academic conferences. But it can be a style of preaching and a kind of sermon as well. The words have been carefully chosen, and most often the delivery is not terribly enthusiastic or exciting, especially by preaching standards. This is another sermon type that was once more common but today would likely be found only in a small number of ‘high church’ environments. I’ve heard Roman Catholic priests give ‘homilies’ that are basically short speeches they are reading. One interesting note on this style: it is the preferred way of the big shots who lead the massive LDS Church (the Mormons). When I lived in their shadow I would watch some of their semi-annual meetings viewed by millions of their members around the world. There in the enormous conference center their leading ‘apostles’ would give talks (sermons), which amounted to mostly soft monotone reading off a teleprompter of words painstakingly crafted with help from what amounts to speechwriters (Here is the current Mormon prophet/president from the most recent conference). If you are ever tempted to think your church’s sermons are boring, just be glad you’re not a Mormon.
The Stand-Up Comedy Sermon
Humor is always effective if the speaker is effective with it. People who speak to young audiences can force it too much, of course. I’ve heard preachers who are not naturally inclined toward it decide to try a stand-up act in front of a room full of teenagers hoping it will bridge the gap. This is dangerous. Now I’ll admit that when someone has the ‘chops’ for it (good timing and all), I enjoy plenty o’ comedy on the part of the speaker. I’m even critical of some preachers who I think are really good but seem to have no sense of humor whatsoever. But on the other hand, when an attempt at humor bombs it can have a backfiring effect on the whole sermon. And of course if the message is to have a meaningful point, there should be at least part of it that is not evoking laughs. There are wrong reasons for a sermon to be funny, as we all know. And there are wrong methods for getting a crowd to laugh, as the once infamous “holy laughter” phenomenon demonstrated. If people are going to roll in the aisles, I’d rather it be because they’re hearing something like this.
And speaking of comedy, outsiders always get a special kick out of preachers who yell most or all of their sermons, making such sermons unique in and of themselves. Many preachers will raise their voices in certain places, but the screamers start belting it out the moment they open their mouths and keep it a maximum volume until the last “amen.” While some will be tempted to see this as mostly within black churches, it is actually found among preachers of all backgrounds and types. I’ve seen screamers in white collars and screamers in T-shirts. They can be young or old. All that’s needed is a good set of pipes and lung capacity. These guys (and sometimes women too) can shred their vocal cords nightly & never lose their voices. In a few cases the hollerin’ is not in fact every word but certain words – like the way this guy always yells the word “GOD.” When you see a news story or youtube forward about an amazing ‘boy preacher’, the primary talent that the kid has developed is yelling in the preaching cadence he has heard along with the gestures he has seen. It’s so easy a child can do it.
The Evangelistic Sermon
With the exception of televised prosperity preaching, more people outside the church walls have heard this kind of sermon than any other, thanks largely to long time traveling evangelistic preachers like Billy Graham. Back in the periods of “Great Awakening” in 18th Century Europe & America, men like John Wesley, George Whitefield and later Charles Finney travelled widely and preached to countless hordes of people in the open air. This sermon does not merely include the basic Christian Gospel message, it preaches only this message. That is, however it gets to it, it gets there fast. The text might be on anything from Moses’ showdown with Pharaoh to Paul’s instructions about elders, but the sermon will really be the same thing each time: the sacrificially atoning death of Jesus for sin and his resurrection, combined with the call to accept this as the basis for being made right with God and becoming a follower of Christ, over against the warning of rejecting all of this at your eternal peril. You could accuse evangelistic sermonizers of being “one trick ponies” but unlike other single-issue preachers (whose only topic may be abortion or the modern state of Israel or gay marriage), this is far more justifiable as a single issue, since it is the theologically central and foundational message of the entire Christian system of belief. Obviously missionaries in very un-Christianized places preach mostly these sermons, since it is the heart of Christianity. It is the starting place and entry into the rest of what it means to believe and live like a Christian. Since the aforementioned ‘Awakenings’ these sermons have most often ended with “alter calls” or invitations to public confession (or counseling, prayer, etc.). The only downside for a congregation that hears only these sermons each week and counts on the preaching alone to comprise their spiritual training is that they will remain biblical and theological infants for life.
The Hipster Sermon
This would involve elements from some of the other kinds – like comedy, contemporary references to current events & entertainment, practical self-help advice – but it would be packaged better. The preacher is likely on the younger side, exuding the vibes of coolness. His look is good, his dress is perfectly within the styleguide of this week’s fashions. He has easy stage presence and connects well with the audience. And his physical surroundings no doubt match up & help create the hipster atmosphere. There’s a good chance the church is a fairly new “plant.” The very traditional church goer may even be inherently suspicious of the level of cool permeating the experience. You’ll probably hear the slang that is the native tongue of 18 year-olds but a foreign dialect to people over 35. It’s not likely there will be depth or length to the message but it is not impossible. This sermonizer knows that attention spans are short. He also knows how to use media to enhance the message in powerful ways. Of course no style of church is so hip that it can’t be parodied just like the rest on this list. We at least have to laud this sermon’s appeal to outsiders and seekers. They will likely listen, comprehend and engage with it. Hopefully it’s more than fluff and show.
The Right Wing Political Sermon
Since the modern era of the “moral majority” that came and went when I was too young to understand it, there has been a regular diet of preaching the politically conservative gospel in many socially and politically ‘right wing’ circles. What started then has rolled on through several phases, especially as the political polarization overall has increased. This kind of sermon would provide a weekly update on the biggest issues that conservative Republicans are addressing. No need to Tevo your favorite Fox News shows – just go to church. Sermons are most likely to focus on moral and social debates – abortion, gay marriage, large vs. small government, threats to religious freedom, the sound bytes surrounding whatever specific thing is being fought over this week. This kind of sermon is also typically very patriotic – “draped in the flag” as they say.
The Left Wing Political Sermon
Political sermons aren’t just from the right. There exist more socially liberal congregations regularly treated to sermons that are every bit as political in nature, only coming from the opposite wing. An observer once described Obama’s Chicago pastor Rev. Wright as “the liberal Falwell.” I remember how on my commute I used to hear regular AM radio broadcasts of a downtown mainline OKC church whose minister preached these kinds of sermons. His voice was more measured and soft-spoken, but every message made the point about how Bush & the evil Republicans (this was some years ago) were the Pharisees. They, after all, talk about being religious, he would say, but it is mere hypocrisy, since they exploit the poor, launch wars, are arrogant, & think they are better than others for racial reasons (just like the Jewish elitists in the Gospels). This was his basic weekly sermon. Of course a less extreme version of this can be seen in what some call today the “Christian Left” or “Red Letter Christians” (since they emphasize the teachings of Jesus primarily). Some of it is a reactionary movement by those rejecting the ‘religious right’ of their upbringing. Others simply wed Christian morality to social & political causes that they feel the political left represent (“income inequality,” etc.).
So Which is the Right One?
It’s not so easy to specify one of these to the exclusion of elements of all the others. Some of what is represented in these descriptions should clearly be avoided. There should not be rambling idiocy, manipulation, lame attempts at comedy, twisted theology, etc. But then some of the other features in these different descriptions are vitally important. The text should be handled well, studied with some depth, and taught at a level above 4th grade Sunday School. This should quite naturally involve background, history, logical connections, theological/doctrinal truths as they appear.
I think some truths will be important enough to camp out on and defend (good arguments made for them), hence some apologetics. In certain places there will be obvious connections to current events as well as practical applications to life’s numerous questions and challenges. Comedy is golden when used well, just like analogies and anecdotes are fabulous tools in the hands of an effective communicator. And of course the central Christian Gospel message is the theological “True North” that maintains the overall philosophical perspective throughout.
That’s my take on it, anyway. You may disagree. You may argue that there are still too few sermons, and that any sort of sermon is better than no sermon (or a lack of sermons). You may think of kinds of sermons that I left off the list or important components of a good sermon that I failed to emphasize in the preceding paragraph. If so your comments are welcome. Now I’ll conclude by saying “Amen” and allow you to sing your own benediction.
Clint Roberts has taught Philosophy, Religion, Ethics, Critical Thinking, Apologetics, and a few less interesting subjects over the last decade or so. He likes the Credo House because he once launched a similar non-profit establishment in a different state. His Masters is from a fine theological institution and his doctorate focused on famed arguments by Clive Staples Lewis. He and Wanda lived in Texas a little while, then Idaho very briefly, then Salt Lake City for several years prior to coming to the prairie lands of Oklahoma. They had four kids along the way, and later adopted two more humans, a few goats and chickens, and a pony.