Seeker Perspective: Bad Websites, Bad Topics and Bad Preaching

I knew I wanted to attend church this morning somewhere fairly nearby, so I began looking at UU web sites to see what the offerings were.

First of all, I shouldn’t have to search and search through a church website to find the Sunday service information. Let’s make that easy, folks.

Second, please don’t provide directions to your church but fail to note its address or what STATE it’s in (some of us have GPS systems — we don’t need directions, we need an address).

Please include pertinent dates on your site. What year am I looking at? And why direct me to a February calendar full of your church’s activities and meetings but no worship information when I click the Worship link? I’m a seeker, not a member. I don’t care if AA meets on Monday nights and the Knitting Circle on Wednesdays. I want to know what’s happening on Sunday morning — when and where.

Preachers, we need to remember how uninteresting it is to someone who hasn’t been to church in a long time to see that the sermon of the day is about someone we’ve never heard of, or dedicated to a friend of the congregation’s we’ve never met. This kind of insider approach keeps me, the seeker, away from your church. Consider framing the sermon in a broader way and then using [insert admirable dead Unitarian here] as your chief illustration. Something like, “The Spiritual Strength and Suffering of Individualism” rather than “Emersonian Individualism: Two Views.” (At least most people have heard of Ralph Waldo Emerson!). I, the seeker, don’t care to hear a book report or a historical lecture. What application will your sermon have to my life, relationships, work, meaning-making? Don’t tell me what book you read to prep your manuscript — tell me what I can look forward to learning for the good of my soul!! *

Snark and negativity do not make for inviting sermon titles for this seeker. Am I going to a college debate or a worship service? Cognitive dissonance; please avoid it and I promise to do so as well in the future.

When I finally did find a service (not a UU church) this morning, I wound up walking out after half an hour. Why? First, one of the ministers was, in a word, simpering. While I certainly support all worship leaders using the quotidian grace of our lives to enrich our liturgical illustrations, I am deeply uncomfortable when parents use their children or family lives to provide cutesy — I’m sure they intend them to be accessible — analogies for God’s presence in the world. Cutesy theology is insipid theology. As an intentional non-parent, I am especially intolerant of this transparent ploy for my warm understanding. Any prayer that could be fairly described as “darling” by a kinder set of ears is no prayer for me. It isn’t that I don’t honor parenting, it’s that I know damned well that parenting and family life is not darling. It’s intense, it’s exhausting, it is blood and guts real life and radical love. I want to say to the minister I saw this morning, Don’t you dare get up there and nervously flip your bangs out of your face like a teenager and diminish your own and God’s grandeur like that.

A student minister gave the sermon. He badly needs a diction coach to correct his sloppy, muckle-mouthed enunciation (a slight lisp is not the problem: a lazy mouth is the problem). He even more urgently needs a lesson in how to structure and deliver a religious message, and a solid dressing down for insulting the congregation by ascending the pulpit unprepared and with a heavy reliance on flippancy. When a preacher invites the congregation before sermonizing to pray with him that the words of his mouth and the meditations of his heart be pleasing to the Lord, and that the Word may reach the people, you know you’re in trouble when he mumbles and fumbles his way even through that preface. There is no excuse for this, young preacher. If you intend to begin your sermons with this invocation, learn it. Own it. Deliver it as though you mean it or stay out of the pulpit until you do.

After the young preacher (dressed, according to my male friend, like a gangster) claimed for the third or fourth time what a hypocrite he was to dare to preach on this topic and then said he had no right to be up in the pulpit, I whispered to my friend, “Then don’t get up there!”
We left.

Preachers of every age and experience level: If you don’t think you have “the right” to be in the pulpit, stay out of it. If you think any of us is preaching from a place of total purity, get over it. We are all spiritual failures and we are all hypocrites. We do not preach from a place of perfection but of faith, hope and love. We preach because we have a deep desire to understand, to be seared by conscience, to experience God’s grace, to find a way to help build the Kingdom of God. No one wants or needs to hear how unworthy we are. How unsure, yes. How confused, fine. How afraid, certainly. How vulnerable, of course. Unworthy to address the congregation, no.

My God, what a thing to say. What a cop-out. What an offense to the worshiper, who has come trusting that the preacher is prepared internally and externally to impart some wisdom.

A Bronx cheer to “I’m not worthy.”

* I have TOTALLY done this myself in the past and am going to try to avoid it in the future now that I see how uninteresting it sounds to the seeker.

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13 Responses to Seeker Perspective: Bad Websites, Bad Topics and Bad Preaching

  1. Dudley M. Jones says:

    Thank you very much for not identifying the offending denomination. [Not town, not denomination, not nothin’. And no one there knows me. And my friend is a Krishna devotee, so I know he wasn’t recognized, either. – PB]

  2. Rev. Steelman says:

    She’s back!

    Well spoken! Sorry you were not well fed. You deserved a better re-entry into this part of your life.

    Peace to you….and best wishes for loving licks and pats and purrs from your furry 4-legged family.

  3. And it’s sloppiness like this which slowly erodes the foundation of any faith tradition and keeps away the people searching to find a spiritual communion with others.

  4. Kelly KH says:

    Amen. And man, I wish you could be my preaching mentor! Strong words – I bet you’re a joy to listen to in person 🙂

  5. Dave says:

    Yeah, I recall rejecting 4 out of 5 UU churches when I was in NC because of this kind of issue with their websites, some of which went out of their way to make it clear that the only thing they were taking seriously was their own sense of too-cool-for-taking-religion-seriously superiority. The one I went to a few times did advertise itself as overtly spiritual (yay!) but it was totally generic. It got old fast. Thanks for your honesty.

  6. Lois says:

    Well said, and you have so hit the nail on the proverbial head.

    These are some of the reasons why I am not a member of a church. Unfortunately, I find that I prefer to fill myself up, rather than become frustrated with the topics that are spoken from the pulpit.

    We did attend a church at one time, the minister was dynamic and gave us brain food. But as time went on, we found that this minister had issues that we did not agree with ethically or politically. We left that church a few years ago and have not sought out another.

  7. C says:

    Our church website is currently being aggressively and completely revised behind the scenes, and so the website that is up right now is in even worse disrepair then usual. But at least we get around the Sunday morning sermon-title issue by never, ever announcing the sermon title or topic beforehand. We want people to come to church not because of a topic, but to worship, plain and simple. Works for us!

    And welcome home!

  8. Elizabeth says:

    I hope – and I mean this – that you have found out the name of that student minister, and sent him some feedback. You, as a worshiper, are the best source of feedback he can have. I know that you will be able to make something of this teachable moment to that young man, so that he can be more effective, wherever he finds his congregation.

  9. Ouch! No, really – Ouch! Somedays I just want to throw in the towel, throw myself in the toilet after it, and never preach another sermon again. And people tell me I’m actually pretty good at it….

  10. Abigail says:

    Calmate’ mi amiga. Ten serenidad.

    Your grief at the end of your sabbatical is sincere and deserves respect. Vaya con Dios.
    [Gracias, hermana, but my sabbatical isn’t over until June!! -PB]

  11. Judy Welles says:

    Thanks (I think) for the whop up side the head, PB. I am envisioning my next sermon (March 15) after the birth today of my first grandchild (welcome, Owen!) and thinking that all I will be able to talk about is the total amazing fantastic powerful wonderful miracle of new life emerging. I will try to make it not darling.

  12. mds says:

    She’s back!
    So glad that I’ve had the training direct from this preacher!
    May you find some sustenance on your next venture to church.

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