Nearly every preacher makes it a priority to make his sermon “relevant” to his audience. The difficulty with this aim is that it often assumes that “relevant” and “interesting” are synonymous. In other words, a sermon must be relevant in the sense that it must capture the audience’s attention and imagination, leaving them with a concrete take away for practical living.
I have two serious criticisms of this approach. First, that something is “interesting” has as much to do with the character of the receiver as to do with the qualities of that thing. The job of a teacher, for example, is not only to pass on a body of “information” to his hearers, but also to persuade the hearer to see this bit of cultural tradition as vital both to self-understanding and to a broader understanding of the world. The teacher is working on the affections of the students, seeking to bring about interest in important areas that our tradition has always though ought to hold our interest because of their tremendous value in culture making. When my students say that the material is “boring” I hear the following:
“I am unable to connect this material with any part of my regular patterns of thought in any way which I perceive to be interesting. In other words, it just might be the case that this material is so far above my understanding that I don’t even have a conceptual grasp about what it might be saying. Or I might be saying, that I am unable to connect this material with any real basis from which I make decisions, either due to inexperience or ineptitude in my decision making faculties.”
I understand the very fact that they find it “boring” is owing largely to a deficiency on their part. Now, granted, it is incumbent upon me as a teacher to find ways to convince the students of this. But it is also incumbent upon students to deny their intellectual vice, which is the cause of their finding the world boring. They have a responsibility to be amateurs (French for “lovers”) in a radically interesting world.
Second, this approach assumes that “practical take-aways” are the most necessary part of change. Important to my critique of the discussion above is that an significant problem with American culture is that it finds really crucial things boring and really insignificant things exciting. How does one correct this with five steps? While personal and very practical changes are a part of what makes something “interesting,” this is only part of a larger pedagogical aim, to give the student (or congregant) ordered affections which flow from a proper understanding of the world and result in proper behavior. To skip to behavior is to truncate personal formation and to create mindless congregants. This is very far from Paul’s aim in Romans 12:1-2 where he sought to renew minds. The doctrine, for Paul, led to a proper assessment of self, others, and the world, which, in turn, led to proper activity in the world.