Heard Any Good Sermons Lately?

By Woodward, Kenneth L. | Newsweek, March 4, 1996 | Go to article overview

Heard Any Good Sermons Lately?


Woodward, Kenneth L., Newsweek


From the Jeremias of the Puritan divines to the mountain-striding rhetoric of Martin Luther King Jr., Americans have been a people awash in a sea of sermons. Every Sunday more than 400,000 Christian preachers mount the pulpit to interpret the ways of God to man. Hundreds more are heard on radio and television. Among preachers themselves, good sermons are prized like good poems, collected like baseball cards, critiqued like the latest films and novels. For many Protestants--Baptists in particular--preaching isn't everything: it's the only thing.

So who is the best preacher of them all? This week Baylor University unveils its list of the 12 "most effective" preachers in the English-speaking world (page 51). The list, drawn mainly from a survey of 341 seminary professors and editors of religious periodicals, includes some obvious choices.

Evangelist Billy Graham is there, along with James Forbes, senior minister of Riverside Church in New York City, and the granddaddy of current African-American preachers, Gardner C. Taylor, pastor emeritus of Concord Baptist Church of Christ in Brooklyn, N.Y. But there are surprises, too. Roman Catholics, seldom noted for their preaching, are represented by Jesuit Walter Burghardt of the Woodstock Center in Washington, D.C. And one woman made the list: Barbara Brown Taylor, the rector of Grace-Calvary Episcopal Church in Clarkesville, Ga.

Like all lists, Baylor's round apostolic 12 reflects those who did the choosing. Most of the chosen are also academics themselves, and their reputations are based as much on what they have published about homiletics -- the study of preaching -- as on the evidence of their oral performances. Publicity helps, too. "Each one has a pretty slick publishing arm--pamphlets, videotapes, articles in journals and popular magazines," says Baylor sociologist Larry Lyon, who designed the survey and analyzed the results. But at least half are closer to the end of their careers than to the beginning. In short, Baylor's dozen is more like a preachers' hall of fame than a team of active all-stars.

Is the golden age of preaching coming to a close? Or merely changing? Can sermons get heard over the cynical, multimedia din of modern life? One of Baylor's 12, Thomas Long of Princeton Theological Seminary, addresses such issues in articles like "Beavis and Butthead Get Saved." He says that television has reduced some preaching to "sound-bytes, imagistic bursts and episodic narratives," but this may only whet the appetite for live speech. "The most powerful form of communication," Long insists, "is still one human being standing up and speaking courageous truth." Similarly, mall-like superchurches often feature musical entertainment rather than hardwrought sermons to attract the random church-shopper. But the good preaching today can be still heard, often unadvertised, in local congregations. "You can find it round the corner and down the street by pastors who articulate the church's mission to these people in this place," says Long. "In the past there were pulpits where preaching was showcased. Today it's local, so it doesn't travel, doesn't get in print."

American preaching has evolved somewhat like pop music--it has been heavily influenced by African-American traditions and rhythms. White clergy are no longer shy about looking to their black brethren for guidance. The current leading crossover figure is James Forbes, who became the first African-American to serve New York's prominent Riverside Church in 1989. Before that, he served at Union Theological Seminary, where one of his early sermons became legendary in the trade. Forbes mounted the pulpit and silently held out two tuning forks. After an excruciating long pause--"we could hear our hearts beating," recalls one witness--he set one humming, then slowly brought the two together. "Would that we had this kind of relationship with God," he thundered. And the congregation gasped for breath. …

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