How do you decide which sermons win awards?" I asked the editor, and received a thoroughly rational answer. Submissions to the Alfred P. Klausler Sermon Awards were evaluated on good use of biblical text and contemporary illustrations, clarity of thought, comforting the afflicted, challenging evil--all the criteria we learned in preaching classes.
But in the field, evaluating effective sermons is not so simple. Our judges recognize that the sermon has no life until it's preached in a particular parish setting. There is no fixed meaning of a chosen passage, no single reading of a printed sermon. Like the stories that circulate among the people of a congregation, biblical texts take on various shades of meaning from the insights of the speaker and the needs of the listeners, the speaker's verbal articulation and body language, the cultural setting of the gathering and the spatial relations of speaker to audience, the economy of the community and its sociopolitical identity in the larger world. All words and gestures carry connotations appropriate to their cultures. As William Whyte said of Boston society, a raised eyebrow in one community is the equivalent of a fist pounding on the table (or pulpit) in another part of town.
It's relatively easy to recall how different preaching is among congregations from a wide variety of cultural settings. But as I visit various churches, I am even more impressed with how many distinct audiences the preacher must address in each congregation. We can recognize a wide variety of listener needs just by looking around a single auditorium.
In every Sabbath service we find traditional people who want a classic presentation: "three points, a poem and a prayer." The spouse of the traditionalist may be an experiential worshiper who can't recall a single point but tunes in on human relationships, and might comment afterward, "Were you feeling well today, Pastor?" In every church people bring unspoken differences of faith; for example, the three kinds of faith that Tex Sample calls the "folk religion" of extended caring, the "explanatory religion" of those who want order in their lives, and the "journey religion" of those who want a constantly changing encounter with life and experience of God (U.S. Lifestyles and the Church, 1990). If we want to count the many filters through which members hear the sermon, look at the choices they have made--the vehicles in the parking lot, for example, or the footwear if there is no parking lot. Maybe for the truly comprehensive sermon every pastor should imagine preaching through each of the members' favorite radio stations, making the necessary changes in content, rhythm and language.
We don't have to visit other churches to find variety among the gathered listeners. Every preacher at every worship service faces an array of humans who are impossibly different. When I was preparing my sermons, I remember sitting in various pews when the sanctuary was empty just to gain empathy with the particular people who would occupy that place on Sunday for worship; I'd sit in their place if not "walk in their shoes." Early in my ministry I asked God to tell me what to say to all these different people--but as I realized the futility of feeding so many separate needs, I changed my prayer to ask God to send the people who needed to hear what ! was going to tell them.
Then I encountered a strange phenomenon: the Spirit can whisper to people what they need to hear, whether the preacher said it or not. I discovered this "personal translation" when I learned how people "heard" what they needed from a sermon, even if it was not in the text. I would worry about this being abused by congregations with new preachers, but I have observed it only among congregations that know their minister--and more important, that know that they are known. An older parishioner described her new pastor to me, saying that she liked him, "but I don't understand his preaching, not yet." When I asked if he should talk more loudly or slowly, she explained that the problem wasn't the volume of his voice, but the length of his stay. She explained, "When I know the preacher knows me, I always hear him make connections with my life."
That's an award-winning sermon to those in the pews--when pastors preach the gospel as they understand it, and trusting members hear it as spoken especially to them.