One of the things I love about being married to Pam is that I get to see things in her educational / professional world that relate to the world of ministry.
We were walking around our neighborhood yesterday and she told me about a style of speech pathology therapy that drives her nuts. You see in therapy you determine outcomes that you believe the patient needs to reach as a part of their recovery. Some times those outcomes, while not bad outcomes in and of themselves, have nothing to do with the patient’s actual life.
For example, let’s consider a patient who has had a stroke and can no longer sign her name. Some therapists might list one of the patient’s outcomes as helping the patient to re-learn the cursive alphabet to enable her to write. The problem is that being able to write the alphabet isn’t the same as being able to sign you name. The patient could easily be able to learn to write the entire alphabet and still not be able to sign her name. The outcome that the therapist is aiming for doesn’t help the person even if the outcome is achieved. Or for another example let’s imagine a patient who is having identifying issues. Perhaps the therapist picks an outcome of being able to identify silhouettes. Identifying silhouettes is great if the patient is a duck hunter and the silhouettes are of birds but not much use otherwise. Admittedly I am not a speech pathologist and so my examples aren’t very good. Hopefully you still get the point – some outcomes that are aimed for are actually pretty useless.
So while Pam and I were walking and talking I kept thinking about aiming at useless outcomes during sermons. What is the outcome that I am hoping will happen as a result of the message? When I was studying preaching in seminary (I guess I am still doing so) this aim was called the “central idea of the sermon” or CIT. The CIT is basically “what should change or be done as a result of this sermon (both giving it and hearing it)?” It’s the desired outcome of the message. It is important for the message to have a target and it is also important that what the sermon is aiming for actually matters to a person’s faith.
I wonder if often the hoped for outcomes of our messages don’t really matter much to anyone’s faith. This doesn’t mean that the aim is bad in and of itself, just that it isn’t appropriate at the time or context for the people hearing the message. Remember the silhouettes of the ducks? Well, I as wrote earlier, they are great are great if you are a duck hunter. Not so much otherwise. What if, like the silhouettes, the aim of the sermon isn’t pertinent to the congregant’s lives? For example, what if I am focusing on the congregation understanding the political and societal aspects of the Ancient Near East because I think it is cool, but such info doesn’t really help the members of the church live out their faith in 21st century America. They might have more biblical knowledge as a result of such information but not really more biblical faith. Or what if all I ever preach about are aims that don’t relate to the congregation’s context? What if I am constantly preaching about Christ overcoming to a group of people who are pretty much living the good life and probably need to instead be reminded of Jesus’ call to sacrifice as a part of following Him? What if I am focused on people understanding the different words for love that Jesus uses when he “reinstates” Peter but I don’t shoot for them actually understanding loving someone in their own lives who has betrayed them? Is the sermon useless if the outcomes I am hoping for are useless? I don’t think so because people are still directed to God’s word and God’s word doesn’t “return back void.” Still I don’t think the message is as effective as it could be if its aimed for outcomes are trivial and useless.
The outcomes I am aiming for during a sermon are important and part of that importance is how it changes our lives. I want to preach for changed lives. My own and others. I want powerful outcomes to be a part of my messages.