Heard Any Good Sermons Lately?
By Kenneth L. Woodward On 3/3/96 at 7:00 PM
FROM THE JEREMIADS OF THE Puritan divines to the mountain-striding rhetoric of Martin Luther King Jr., Americans have been a people awash in a sea of sermons. Every Sunday more than 400,000 Christian preachers mount the pulpit to interpret the ways of God to man. Hundreds more are heard on radio and television. Among preachers themselves, good sermons are prized like good poems, collected like baseball cards, critiqued like the latest films and novels. For many Protestants — Baptists in particular—preaching isn’t everything: it’s the only thing.
So who is the best preacher of them all? This week Baylor University unveils its list of the 12 “most effective” preachers in the English-speaking world (page 51). The list, drawn mainly from a survey of 341 seminary professors and editors of religious periodicals, includes some obvious choices.
Evangelist Billy Graham is there, along with James Forbes, senior minister of Riverside Church in New York City, and the granddaddy of current African-American preachers, Gardner C. Taylor, pastor emeritus of Concord Baptist Church of Christ in Brooklyn, N.Y. But there are surprises, too. Roman Catholics, seldom noted for their preaching, are represented by Jesuit Walter Burghardt of the Woodstock Center in Washington, D.C. And one woman made the list: Barbara Brown Taylor, the rector of Grace-Calvary Episcopal Church in Clarkesville, Ga.
Like all lists, Baylor’s round apostolic 12 reflects those who did the choosing. Most of the chosen are also academics themselves, and their reputations are based as much on what they have published about homiletics—the study of preaching—as on the evidence of their oral performances. Publicity helps, too. “Each one has a pretty slick publishing arm—pamphlets, videotapes, articles in journals and popular magazines,” says Baylor sociologist Larry Lyon, who designed the survey and analyzed the results. But at least half are closer to the end of their careers than to the beginning. In short, Baylor’s dozen is more like a preachers’ hall of fame than a team of active all-stars.
Is the golden age of preaching coming to a close? Or merely changing? Can sermons get heard over the cynical, multimedia din of modern life? One of Baylor’s 12, Thomas Long of Princeton Theological Seminary, addresses such issues in articles like “Beavis and Butthead Get Saved.” He says that television has reduced some preaching to “sound-bytes, imagistic bursts and episodic narratives,” but this may only whet the appetite for live speech.
“The most powerful form of communication,” Long insists, “is still one human being standing up and speaking courageous truth.” Similarly, mall-like superchurches often feature musical entertainment rather than hard-wrought sermons to attract the random church-shopper.
But the good preaching today can be still heard, often unadvertised, in local congregations. “You can find it round the corner and down the street by pastors who articulate the church’s mission to these people in this place,” says Long. “In the past there were pulpits where preaching was showcased. Today it’s local, so it doesn’t travel, doesn’t get in print.”
American preaching has evolved somewhat like pop music—it has been heavily influenced by African-American traditions and rhythms. White clergy are no longer shy about looking to their black brethren for guidance. The current leading crossover figure is James Forbes, who became the first African-American to serve New York’s prominent Riverside Church in 1989.
Before that, he served at Union Theological Seminary, where one of his early sermons became legendary in the trade. Forbes mounted the pulpit and silently held out two tuning forks. After an excruciating long pause—“we could hear our hearts beating,” recalls one witness—he set one humming, then slowly brought the two together. “Would that we had this kind of relationship with God,” he thundered. And the congregation gasped for breath.
Good preaching, Forbes believes, “has got to make contact. You talk about eye contact. That’s fine. But it’s got to make heart contact.” In most African-American congregations, preaching is a highly relational folk art that simply can’t be duplicated in a white church, even by blacks. Besides repetition of key phrases and other literary devices, black sermons often rely on “the call and response,” a delicate duet in which the congregation may finish the preacher’s sentence, shout encouragement or warn the preacher that he’s wandered off the point. A cry from the pews like “Help him, Jesus” or a simple “Amen” lets a preacher know whether he is misfiring or connecting from the pulpit.
“In preaching, context is everything, which makes it very hard to rank preachers from different traditions,” says Duke University professor James Lischer, author of a superb new study of the sermons of Martin Luther King Jr. In Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and other highly liturgical churches that emphasize the eucharist, the sermon is more instruction than performance. “If [my sermon] turns out to be junk food,” says Brown Taylor, “I know they’ll still get fed because there’s communion coming.” But Jesuit Walter Burghardt believes that Catholic priests too often use the eucharist as “an excuse for giving bad sermons—one reason why some Catholics are leaving the church for Pentecostal congregations.”
For Baptists and other nonliturgical Protestants, the sermon itself is a verbal sacrament in which Christ is made present through the medium of language, rather than in blessed bread and wine. “The best preaching is the flesh made word,” says Duke’s Lischer, a Lutheran, but this view also puts enormous emphasis on the figure in the pulpit.
In Pentecostal churches, gifted preachers take on a God-intoxicated power by re-experiencing for the congregation—Sunday after Sunday — the spiritual travails of sin and salvation. The effect can be electrifying. But it is also risky whenever the burden of the worship service lies solely with the preacher. “It sets the minister up for big ego trips,” says Fred Craddock, 67, a retired Methodist professor on the Baylor list. And, as Proverbs teaches, “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.”
Free-standing, nondenominational churches are the fastest-growing sector in American religion—and usually the creation of a single, charismatic preacher. Many of them are led by women, like Barbara King, founder-minister of Hillside Chapel and Truth Center, Inc., in Atlanta. At 6 feet 5 inches, King cuts a regal presence in the pulpit.
Because her Baptist brethren do not allow women to preach, King never studied at a seminary and founded her own church. Today she preaches three sermons a week to a congregation of 5,000. Like other woman preachers, King, 65, has had no female models for preaching and draws primarily on her “personal life experiences” for her sermons. Women, she believes, are more likely than male preachers to appeal to “the feeling nature.”
Says King: “I’ve heard many women who to me preach just like a man, and I go, why should they do that?” Indeed, Duke’s Lischer finds that women are gradually “feminizing” the way that many men now preach: more personal stories, greater identification with the congregation and—like President Clinton, who loves good preaching—an effort to feel their listeners’ “pain.” (For a list of Clinton’s favorites, see the box on this page.)
The old traditions of preaching are far from dead. Those traditions value the close study of Scripture, clear organization, the conviction that what is said must be true. Modesty helps, too. “A good preacher is self-forgetting,” insists Anglican John R. W. Stott, former chaplain to the Queen of England and the only non-American on the Baylor list.
“I abominate all this talk about great preaching—I call it pulpiteering.” When preachers are praised for their sermons, they should think of how Jesus “was mostly rejected for what he said and did,” says Methodist William H. Willomon, dean of the Chapel at Duke University. “If there’s one thing worse than being rejected,” Willomon believes, “it’s being accepted.” Amen, brother.
A Baylor University survey names the 12 “most effective preachers” in the English-speaking world.
senior fellow, Woodstock Theological Center, Wash., D.C.
professor emeritus, Candler School of Theology, Emory Univ., Atlanta
senior minister, Riverside Church, New York City
Billy Graham Evangelistic Ass’n
chaplain of the United States Senate and former pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, Hollywood, Calif.
professor, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, South Hamilton, Mass.
rector emeritus, All Souls Church, London, and president, London Institute for Contemporary Christianity
president, Dallas Theological Seminary
rector, Grace-Calvary Episcopal Church, Clarkesville, Ga.
pastor emeritus, The Concord Baptist Church of Christ, Brooklyn, N.Y.
dean of the Chapel, Duke Univ., Durham, N.C.
President Clinton loves good preaching. In response to a Newsweek request, he listed some of his favorites.
senior pastor at the Emmanuel Baptist Church, Little Rock, with whom Clinton talks weekly on the phone
of Brooklyn, N.Y., whom he heard preach at Howard Univ., (also on Baylor list)
pastor at the Willow Creek Community Church, a megachurch in South Berrington, Ill.
Hillary Clinton’s pastor at Foundry United Methodist Church, Washington, D.C., where the Clinton family regularly worships
(also on Baylor list)
evangelist and sociology professor, Eastern College, St. Davids, Pa.; leads a coalition of liberal Christians