The worship ethos was heavy with anticipation! With the preliminaries completed and the anthem sung, the gathered people of God leaned forward en masse to listen to the sermon. I know for I was among them and was equally eager to hear the message of the hour. We were gathered at the church of a noted popular preacher with a full house in attendance that day.
The biblical text was an intriguing gospel lesson and the title was clever and inviting. This would be a memorable preaching moment. As an active listener that day, I can truthfully state that the sermon was indeed memorable but for all of the wrong reasons. The sacred desk was quickly transformed from a place of biblical testimony to a platform for personal expression and theatrical silliness. At the end of the hour, I wasn’t sure if I had been to church or to the circus.
Something dreadful happened between the reading of the gospel text and the benediction. What happened was the morning “sermon.” To call it a sermon renders a horrific injustice to the power and mystery of what occurs when God’s word is rightly proclaimed. What I heard fits nowhere within the genre of the great preachers of history. My critique has nothing to do with the form of the sermon. Forms have changed over time and they will continue to change. My concern has nothing to do the form and everything to do with the substance. The “sermon” was not biblical. It was cute, it was entertaining and engaging but it was not true to the text.
As I left the church I heard rumbling off in the distance which was, no doubt, the collective groans of Chrysostom, Luther, Beecher, and Spurgeon rolling over in their graves at what had just transpired! The minister had a holy moment “one shot” opportunity to engage the text through sermon, and he missed it completely.
As I drove away I began to ask myself what had gone wrong in the sermon. And in the midst of my musing I thought about the “lostness” of the message and how the preacher strayed from the text. It immediately evoked the image from Luke 15 and the Prodigal Son. This was a Prodigal sermon, I concluded.
What exactly is a Prodigal sermon? The Prodigal sermon, like the Prodigal Son, is a sermon that strays far from its biblical home to the far country of excess. It is preaching that, deliberately or not, chooses to go its own way and to claim its own inheritance. In contrast with the Prodigal Son, the Prodigal sermon rarely finds its way home and often dies an agonizingly slow death in a place it should have never gone.
The Prodigal sermon is characterized by a number of less than admirable traits. The images of Luke 15 provide a wonderful template for understanding the flaws of prodigal sermons.
Prodigal sermons are by their very nature greedy and ambitious. They attempt to go beyond the borders of the text into dangerous and often unbiblical territory. It is as if the preacher does not believe that the text is sermonically sufficient. The key to authentically biblical preaching is the appropriate ability to identify the controlling biblical and theological motif in the passage. To do otherwise is to violate the premise of biblical preaching. Biblical preaching is just that. It is preaching under the constraint and authority of the chosen biblical passage.
The aforementioned “sermon” was a message based on Mark 2:1-12. It is the wonderful passage that deals with the faith of four friends on behalf of a helplessly paralytic friend on one hand and the authority and power of Jesus Christ on the other. Sadly, these controlling narrative themes were lost. Somehow the essential ingredients of the text strayed from the path of the scripture and wandered into the land of prosperity gospel with the emphasis being that the healed man was raised to a life of prosperity and wealth. Keep the text in mind; there is no mention of wealth, success or prosperity to be found there. The man was healed by Jesus and he walked away.
The greed of the moment seduced the preacher into realms that are far beyond the biblical boundary. Something to remember in sermonic development is that the biblical text lights the boundaries of the sermon. As long as that light remains clear and central in the sermon, the message is on target. But the moment the sermon wanders into the shadows of the text, be warned; the sermon has lost its focus and nudges ever closer to obscurity at best and being blatantly unbiblical at worst. One way to think of the text is that it sets the theological fencepost for the sermon. The parameters then are clearly delineated. Once the sermon wanders beyond those boundaries, it has strayed into the land of lostness and it has lost its biblical mooring.
Moreover, Prodigal Sermons wander to the far country. Once again the previously referenced sermon leaped over the theological fence posts of the text. In the story of the Prodigal Son, Jesus is careful to note the rightful heritage that the boy possessed. He knew to whom he belonged and he fully understood the inherent expectations. Prodigal sermons fail to fully own the sacredness of what the sermonic moment offers. It is as if the biblical text is of no consequence and the preaching moment is offered on the altar of compromise and convenience. Or, to put it bluntly, Prodigal sermons are typically sermons in search of a text. They espouse ideas but these ideas dangle precariously from the text.
These sermons forget about home. They enjoy the glamour of other homiletic lands and they dance dangerously with invigorating and often appealing ideas. But at the end of the day, preaching is not about exotic and alternate themes, it is solely about the biblical text that is at hand. When that distinction is lost, the sermon has no choice but to wander aimlessly away from home.
Prodigal sermons, like the wandering boy, ultimately squander the inheritance. One of the saddest truths found in Luke 15 is that of a boy who was willing to forsake a noble inheritance for the thrill of the moment. Often that same principle holds true in the preaching that allows the sacred moment to be invaded by the secular or the silly.
The stakes are too high in preaching to squander words or time. If the words are as holy as we declare, we dare not waste the moment. Hence, the preaching moment is one to measure words and thoughts carefully. To cast meaningless words before the people of God in worship is a sin before Almighty God and it violates that to which, as preachers, we have been called.
How, then, does the Prodigal sermon return to the home of biblical faithfulness and integrity? The process for the return is found clearly in Luke 15. The Prodigal of Jesus could only return home when he “came to his senses” and repented of his actions. Likewise, sermons that habitually stray, need to turn back home to the text.
There are several dominant thoughts that need to remain central in sermonic growth and development.
First, the preacher must vow to return home to the biblical text and promise to never leave that world again. Sadly, many preachers spend more time with alliteration than they do interpretation. Looking for catchy images and an enticing turn of phrase, many preachers spend more time with the form of the sermon (how many points, illustrations, or alliterations) than they do the substance of the sermon.
As a professor of preaching I find myself increasingly fighting up-hill battles when it comes to the text. A recent conversation serves my point. I listened to a student sermon that quickly turned “Prodigal.” When I spoke with the student about the sermon later, he became quite defensive toward me when I challenged his lack of engagement with the biblical text. His sermon was quite intriguing in every way but the most important one: it did not deal with the text. When confronted with this truth, he angrily replied, “that is the way my pastor preaches.” I know the student well and I know he is not lying; I believe that his pastor does preach that way and it saddens me that far too many preaching role models fail to engage the text.
The second reminder is predicated upon the first. Once the preacher determines to not leave the safe confines of the biblical home, there must then be an even stronger commitment to truly preaching the text. This is where the hard, gut-check questions about preaching arise. The essential question is, “Does the text drive the sermon, or does the sermon drive the text?” Every sermon must pass muster on this non-negotiable.
I fear this is a place where many well-intentioned preachers stray to the “far country.” Our surrounding culture has convinced us that the quick fix is appropriate so we rely upon microwaves and fast food to nourish our bodies. Everything is on the fast track; even our sermons! Spending ten minutes in biblical study and two hours with the development of the form does not good preaching make.
So called “biblical preachers” are often the most notable culprits. Every semester I engage my students in a real life preaching exercise wherein they are to write a short paper in which they analyze the most meaningful sermon they have ever heard. The exercise forces the student to listen critically to the message. I spoke with one student later in the semester and noted that the paper he submitted was well written but that something was still lacking in the work.
I said, “You did a fine job of identifying important themes in the sermon but I have one simple question. What was the biblical basis of the sermon?” The student shrugged and said, “I don’t think it had one.” The irony of the moment was not lost on the student. With a sheepish grin he replied, “I guess it wasn’t much of a sermon without a biblical text, was it?”
At this point preachers must be very careful. The listener may be motivated and inspired as a result of “our words,” but there is something inherently dangerous if the last echo of the sermon is the word of the preacher and not the Word of God. Preaching is about declaring the text, plain and simple. It is not about manipulating the text to force it to say what we want it to say.
When my children were small they would often occupy themselves with a Play-Dough fun factory. The fun factory is a device that allows children to pick the shape they want the Play Dough to become (star, circle, triangle, etc). The Play Dough is then put in the machine and squeezed. When it comes out of the end of the toy, the dough will be in the desired shape.
Sermons that lack proper exegesis often come out in the same manner. Agendas are hitched to the text and – with some appropriate “squeezing” – the biblical text comes out looking exactly like the preacher desires, often to the exclusion of the actual text.
The biblical text can stand on its own merit without pre-determined outcomes and “squeezed” agendas. If the sermon outcome is determined before the text is engaged, there is something terribly flawed in preaching.
The whole premise of preaching all comes back to the notion of remaining true to the text. When the text is honored and rightfully proclaimed, sermons have the potential to be God-honoring vessels. When the text is ignored or violated, the danger of a Prodigal sermon is the result. It does not need to happen. There are preventive measures in place. But should those measures be ignored or violated, “far country” preaching will inevitably be the result.
Danny M. West is Associate Professor of Preaching and Pastoral Studies at the M. Christopher White School of Divinity, Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs, NC.