Saturday, 9 July 2016

The Church Visitor's Guide to Sermons

In my previous entries in this series, gentle pilgrims, I have instructed you in the art of finding a church (looking out of the window being a good method), and also how to behave in order to visit a service without ending up on a rota.

Staying off Rotas

I can't stress too much how important it is to keep off rotas. If you let yourself onto a rota, or show any sign of skills that might make you useful either in building maintenance or on the church committee, you are doomed to spend years helping out in your spare time. Even if you lose all faith, or convert to Zoroastrianism, you will be locked into the endless routine of keeping things running. Skills to deny having include, in my opinion, the following: Masonry, carpentry, nursing, accountancy, IT, playing the piano, plumbing, the maintenance of 18th century stoves, or reading. Above all else do not admit to being a teacher. A teacher is a person of multi talents in a church setting - used to public speaking, they can be pressed into being a worship leader, a preacher, or - and this is where you really have to keep quiet - a children's worker. Nothing like teaching five days a week, marking on the sixth, and on the seventh day resting by leading the Sunday Club.

But I digress. At some point in the course of going to church services, you will probably have to listen to a sermon. You can do your best to avoid them - go midweek, or at 8 am on Sunday. But you need to be careful about the 8 am. Sometimes the minister will cunningly use it as a kind of pre-season friendly for the sermon they're going to preach at 9.30. Not only will you get a sermon, but it will be the version before they realise that all that stuff about early Assyrian family life can usefully be removed without affecting the main point, whatever that may be.

The sermon will sometimes be on one of the texts of the day. Be careful. If this was the first reading, you probably won't remember what it was about. If you're lucky the church has the readings printed out for you to look up. Alternatively, the sermon can be a seemingly random series of loosely-connected thoughts. Be aware that the preacher may have intended this to be a sermon on one of the readings, but you just can't tell which one. Or else if you're in a Methodist circuit, this sermon will be the only one that the preacher possesses, preaching it at every engagement in the hope that nobody will remember they heard it last time the preacher came round, three years ago.

The sermon will always contain a number of elements in different categories. These are either mandatory or optional.

Mandatory elements

An opening joke. Sermons always have an opening joke. Some might argue that a joke is better in the middle or the end, but the preacher will be aware that, if they leave the joke till later, people may be asleep and will miss it.

Optional elements

An anecdote about the preacher's life that will throw them in the light of wit, social justice warrior, or fearsome fighter of wrongs.

A quote from a famous Christian speaker whom nobody will recognise.

An anecdote about the preacher's life that will tell you how low they fell at some point, but don't worry there's a happy ending. After all, they're preaching now. This may well segue into reading part of the famous tea towel, Footprints.

Some kind of mention of God or Jesus.

What the preacher did on pilgrimage in the Holy Land.

A reference to a book that only the preacher has read, but they will assume is universal. Thomas A Kempis or Julian of Norwich or Fifty Shades of Grey or something.

A reference to a pop lyric from the 70s.

A dodgy explanation of the "real" meaning of a Greek word in the New Testament, which proves that Jesus / Paul / John is saying exactly the opposite of what people think it means if they just read the Bible and didn't read some obscure commentary or even did the translation for themselves.

If you're really lucky - a dodgy explanation of a Hebrew word in the Old Testament, based on a mistranslation of the Greek equivalent or - even worse - the origin of one of the English word that equates to it.

"In a very real sense" - which normally means "I don't believe this and I suspect neither do any of you. But we're all in church aren't we, so we'd all better pretend."

"Amen". Now this is an interesting one. Many preachers end their sermons with "Amen". What are they doing that for? Maybe it's tradition. Maybe they think it's compulsory. Maybe they think a sermon is a prayer. My personal experience is, I always say "Amen" when I don't think the conclusion of the sermon was as uplifting or challenging as I wanted it to be, and I suddenly don't think it's that obvious that the sermon is finished at all and I've added on all the extra bits I just thought of in the hope of rounding it off and if I keep doing that I'm going completely off track. Also "Amen" is a trigger word that will awaken half the congregation as they know it's time to do something else. Or is that just me?

Money: Most preachers avoid mentioning money and giving like the plague, "in case it upsets people". Rochester diocese have mentioned money once, and I don't think they're getting away with it.

A prayer - much like "Amen" and conveniently ending with "Amen" - this tells everybody the sermon's over while giving the preacher the chance to re-state the entire sermon in shortened form.

If you're very lucky, and you're in a more informal / spontaneous church, somebody other than the preacher may stand up and pray a prayer in response to the sermon. Often you will find what the prayer is actually doing, is explaining why the sermon was actually wrong about the Bible reading it was based on.


There is a chance you will fall asleep or just terminally lose concentration. This is not such a problem as you might think. Firstly, you probably needed the sleep. Secondly, you will get the chance to give the right response as you're going out the door.....

Responses as you're going out the door

The classic thing to say as you're going out the door is "nice sermon / service." The preacher will take this as an indication that you didn't listen to a word, and not press the case. If they respond by saying "which bit did you like best?" the only response is to leave the church and never come back.

Explaining to the preacher why what they said was heretical, historically incorrect or scientifically wrong is considered bad form. This is a Post-Truth society. As Brexit and the Trump presidential campaign have shown, being right is no longer necessary.

The best thing to say to the preacher, in my experience, is "great sermon - how would you sum the message up in one sentence?" Firstly this saves you having listened to it. Secondly, if they manage to do it - you'll know enough about what it was about. If they don't manage it, you were probably right to be reading the Song of Solomon throughout the sermon all along. Much more interesting.


  1. Hilarious and sooooo accurate - now suspect someone in our church is moonlighting and writing these articles!

  2. Re: making jokes in sermons. I do wish people wouldn't. The ghastly silence that ensues, while the speaker looks round with a hopeful smile that so quickly fades....

    You don't mention loop systems for the benefit of our aurically-challenged parishioners. The ones who are wont to (a) interrupt the discourse by telling the preacher to "Speak up! None of us can hear you!" or (b) prod a neighbout in the ribs and demand "Whassee saying?" in a reverberating stage whisper.

    In a previous post you mentioned dress. Call me an old fogey (or a self-obsessed neo-Pelagian if you like) but I do not like to see trainers,jeans, bovver boots, torn T-shirts and the like, worn on the altar. What sort of an example is that for a priest to show to his altar servers?

  3. I asked for that one! Trouble is I don't even know what it means except Pelagius was all for free will and against predestination, so for a heretic he can't have been all bad.

    1. He may have been a heretic, but he was a British heretic. And a self-made man, of course.


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