Listening to a sermon is a culturally strange practice. Rarely do 21st century Americans intentionally sit under thirty to sixty minutes of public speaking without seeking an academic degree. Because sermons are (and really always have been) a little weird, it’s understandable why sincere Christians often desire to see sermons conform to more culturally popular institutions. One of those culturally popular institutions over the past few years have been inspiration TED talk. For those unaware, TED talks are ten to twenty minute inspiration talks from different “thought leaders.” TED talks are notorious for their supposed simple profundity, their practical wisdom, their humorous stories, and their bold claims that neglect providing evidences for such claims. For all of the benefits of TED talks or any other inspirational lectures, a sermon is truly comparable to none of them and maybe should be allowed to stay a little weird.
This all begs a question. What precisely is a sermon? To put it simply; a sermon is when a pastor or lay church leaders explains and applies one or multiple passages of scripture in the context of a local church’s congregational meeting. A Biblical sermon makes the main point of a sermon the main point of the text of scripture the sermon is based upon. Much like a well designed car includes a smooth suspension to make the ride a little smoother, most sermons also have introductions to show the intentions of the message, illustrations to help remember the sermon points, and conclusions to remind the listener what they have learned. Though introductions, illustrations, and conclusions are helpful in any kind of public speaking; these are not strictly necessary for a sermon. The focus of a sermon is the explanation of a Bible passage and helpful application of that Bible passage in our modern context, everything else is supplementary.
In his wonderful classic Between Two Worlds, John Stott essentially summarizes preaching as an expedition between two realities; exegesis (or explanation) and application. Sermons seek to take a divinely inspired document written thousands of years ago and show how it relates to our very 21st century concerns. A preacher is both historian and sociologist, both scholar and counselor. While the Bible is the living word of God it was written in very particular contexts and cultures that very clearly shaped the words and concerns of the human authors of scripture. On the flip side the Bible never explicitly addresses some very real concerns of our society, such as internet pornography or tax fraud because it was written in a time that such concerns were irrelevant. Sermons exist to help Christians bridge that gap between a two thousand year old book and modern ethics. Despite being written in a very different context than our own, Evangelicals rightly still believe the Bible is not only without error but it provides us everything we need for life and Godliness. Sermons are where we say “yes the Bible says a great deal about your video game addiction and we will see this through exegeting and applying the Bible.”
While application is the part of the sermon listeners will be moved the most by, it is a destination the preacher must guide the congregation towards. As bad as having the application of the sermon having nothing to do with the text of scripture is when a preacher fails to show the congregation why his Bible text means we should go do this or see Christ there. The preacher that fails to show listeners how to bridge the gap between the ancient Bible and our modern question has become a religious guru. God has called preachers to show what He has said in His word not to tell the listener the preacher’s great words of wisdom. As a pastor of mine once said, “the preacher is a mail man,” he is not a guru. For the same reason no historian could accurately summarize a substantial portion of any ancient document over the course of just a few minutes, this exegesis in a sermon will take considerable time. Most Biblical sermons throughout church history have been at least forty minutes (and typically well over) for precisely this reason. It takes time to show how an ancient text talks to a modern world but when this is compromised the preacher has failed to show congregants how to actually read their Bibles. Sadly when most churches opt to shorten the sermon time the exegesis is where most of the cutting takes place. Naturally the shorter a sermon becomes, the more it becomes reminiscent of a TED talk or the wisdom of a religious guru.
Listening to a biblical sermon is inherently harder than listening to a TED talk. Some say sermons (or at least sermons of certain length) are irrelevant to modern audiences. Perhaps in some ways this is correct, but if we value God’s word and God’s church we must develop the essential skill of listening to God’s word preached well even if it takes us much effort. Maybe the sermon is worth stretching your attention span for and just maybe a sermon doesn’t look like a TED talk because even the most inspirational TED talk will never include the beautiful act of explaining and apply God’s word.
Now go enjoy some great TED talk parodies.