For Pastors

Not long after my recent book Why We Listen to Sermons (Calvin Press, 2019) was released, my colleague John Witvliet and I had a conversation about it at Calvin Seminary’s annual President’s Legacy Society luncheon. John noted that if he had to choose who the book’s main character or actor was, it would clearly be the person of the Holy Spirit. And indeed, that was exactly my intention.

For about seven years in the 1960s, the Beatles recorded special Christmas songs and greetings for the members of its fan club (mailed to them on a 45 rpm—remember those?). One year the song was titled “Christmas Time (Is Here Again).” It has to count as one of the simplest of all Beatles songs as the five words of the title are sung over and over. And over. And over again.

The statistics tell it all. The population is getting older. The first of us born in the so-called post-World War II generation of “baby boomers” are now in our early 70s, and even the youngest of this group—of which I am one—are turning 55 in 2019. Small wonder that something like Social Security has become imperiled. When President Franklin D.

A while ago a friend of mine (who is not a preacher) made a good observation. She noted that when she began attending a certain congregation, she found the pastor’s sermons to be mostly just OK. There was nothing wrong with the sermons. They were solid, fairly interesting most of the time, and very biblical.

Recently I was interviewed for a podcast in connection with a blog I write for a couple of times each month. The interviewer asked the question, “What is the difference between a blog and a sermon?” It was a good question and not one I’d thought about much before. Whether what I came up with by way of an answer was very good or complete I don’t know.

In one of the congregations I served, a friend of mine went through the training to become a Stephen Minister. Stephen Ministers work alongside the church’s elders and pastors in providing pastoral care to members of the congregation. One week the training focused on how to handle mental health issues. The training was given by an expert from a local Christian mental health hospital, and among the topics covered that week were depression but also more severe chronic conditions including bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

When I began to write this article, it had been only a few days since philosopher Alvin Plantinga formally received the 2017 Templeton Prize at a ceremony in Chicago. Through his teaching at Calvin College and then at the University of Notre Dame—and through a bevy of influential articles and books—Plantinga revived serious philosophical engagement with theological and religious topics.

For a long time—the thirty years and more that I was the pastor of the same church—I prided myself in never preaching the same sermon twice. There were exceptions, of course. If I went off somewhere on vacation or for some other reason and was given the opportunity to preach, I took with me a sermon or two, usually a recent sermon, adapted it some for the new place, and preached it over again. These occasions were rarely wholly satisfying. The message, usually part of a series, often seemed slightly off in a new context and preached to people I hardly knew.