In Theory: Lightening the message

A recent op-ed piece published in the New York Times states that American clergy are burning out as they try to meet their congregations' demands for more lighthearted messages. Is it possible for the clergy to tailor their sermons to congregations hungry for a comforting, entertaining message, or is there no room to do so without sacrificing the tenets of their faith? Do you find such challenges as you preach to your flock every Sunday?


So far, combining the serious religious stuff with the humorous has not been a problem for me. However, I must admit that when I decided to go into the ministry at age 60, a college friend had a hard time believing I was sincere! He actually thought I chose the pastorate so that I would have a captive audience that would be forced to listen to my jokes.

In all seriousness, I believe with all my heart that life is serious; as someone has remarked, we're not going to get out of it alive! Still, within the seriousness of life there is a lot of room for laughter. And look at the humor in the Scriptures:

Jonah is swallowed by a large fish because he was running from God.

(Read the book of Jonah sometime; it's only about four chapters. And if you aren't smiling after you read the very last line of that book, there may be something the matter with you! The voice of God is speaking, showing concern for the people of Nineveh … "and also much cattle?"). I believe some of the stories told by Jesus are funny in order to make a point. I mean, how can you not laugh at the idea that you notice that your brother has a speck in his eye while you have a log in yours?! How about when Jesus says it isn't what goes into a man that defiles him but what comes out of a man that defiles him. I have a hard time believing that those who heard those words originally did not crack a smile!

So, am I about to burn out? I don't think so, because I'm having too good a time. Do I worry that I may be having too much fun? Yes, every day!

The Rev. C. L. "Skip" Lindeman

La Cañada Congregational Church, United Church of Christ


As a rabbi, I certainly believe that it's possible to be true to my faith and deliver a sermon that includes a comforting, even entertaining, message. However, it's far from easy to balance these two concepts without compromising one or the other — or even worse, delivering on neither idea. So one must take care when crafting this kind of sermon.

Particularly in challenging times, we naturally yearn to hear an upbeat message that offers hope for a better tomorrow. Whether we're facing a very personal crisis like an illness in the family, or coping with a broader, national issue like an economic downturn, our religious faith offers a welcome measure of reassurance. Beyond providing this basic sense of comfort and inspiration, our houses of worship also offer a sense of fellowship. And when gathered with others, most of us appreciate the chance to enjoy a lighthearted moment and share a laugh.

In good times and bad, the purpose of religion is to elevate people to a higher spiritual awareness. In order to accomplish this, it is sometimes necessary to remove people from their familiar, materialistic comfort zone and help them understand the plight of others. This is rarely a simple task, but many times the process can be made easier if delivered with a dose of humor. I therefore feel it is perfectly acceptable to deliver a sermon with lighthearted elements — so long as they do not compromise the necessary meaningful points.

I feel that it is incumbent upon the clergy to honor the core principles of their spiritual traditions while also speaking to the public in a way that resonates in the contemporary era. We need to recognize that we live in a "feel good" world in which our societies — and especially the younger members — gravitate toward self-gratification. This is a fact of life that we can either fight from the outside or come to terms with and try to change from within. I choose the latter approach, since it provides us with the ability to improve these negative attitudes and allows us to get our message to the masses.

Rabbi Simcha Backman

Chabad Jewish Center


Last month I completed my term as first reader for my church. That position entails conducting the church services, so it seems fitting here to describe the unique sermon that is a feature of the Church of Christ, Scientist. It consists typically of six sections of selections from the Bible with supporting, explanatory passages from "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures," by Mary Baker Eddy.

Eddy regarded the Bible together with Science and Health as the "dual impersonal pastor" of the church she founded. She wrote in her Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896 that "it is God that feedeth the hungry heart, that giveth grace for grace, that healeth the sick and cleanseth the sinner."

This sermon format, known as the Bible Lesson, takes about 30 minutes to read, and is the largest component of our Sunday service. The Bible lessons are compiled by a committee appointed by the church headquarters in Boston, with 26 weekly subjects that rotate twice yearly, and are read each Sunday at branch churches around the world.

The Bible Lessons are published ahead of time in the Christian Science Quarterly, including citations-only and full-text editions. A young persons' edition has background biblical and general information, often in a lighthearted manner — it's my favorite. Most adherents of Christian Science subscribe to the Quarterly, study the Bible Lesson during the week, and find additional inspiration in hearing it read during the Sunday service. They genuinely look forward to discovering helpful gems in the Lesson and applying them daily, even if unable to attend the Sunday service.

This approach to the sermon does not cater to congregational entertainment, of course, but it provides proven scope for addressing current issues of interest and importance, and forms a sound basis for individual spiritual growth.

Graham Bothwell

First Church of Christ, Scientist


I'd like to think that sermons can be entertaining and deep. At least, that's what I said to myself when I preached as Wonder Woman (albeit a budget, plus-sized version of our Amazonian heroine) and then as Princess Leia. (No, I didn't wear that outfit.) Why go to so much trouble? Because the Bible is full of hard-to-understand, challenging texts about justice and mercy and a Jesus who values neighbor over nationalism.

We'd just finished a sermon/study series of Galatians, mining it for essential, eternal truths: the inclusive nature of Jesus' salvation, the freedom of grace, the fruits of life lived in the Spirit, and the rottenness of life without any of these. It wasn't easy work, but we had stuck with it, even through one of Paul's more obscure metaphors. We all needed a breather. Superheroes still bring us stories of redemption and justice, just through a different lens.

That kind of creativity doesn't burn me out — it helps me stay fresh and energized. I am grateful for a congregation that welcomes new ways to get at gospel truths.

There's truth in that old saying about preaching to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." It's not that pastors want everyone to feel like miserable spiders suspended over the boiling pot of God's wrath; it's that God has put it on our hearts to help every person live the fullest life possible. That means facing our fears, prejudices, grudges, cynicism, and bitterness and letting that stuff go. It means learning how to love ourselves, God, and our neighbors.

Sometimes those "personal growth opportunities" are uncomfortable, but it is in those squirmy places where God works with us. When we allow that work to happen, we become more the person God would have us be, and the person we want to be.

So come to church, even when I am not telling jokes and tap-dancing my way to glory.  

The Rev. Paige Eaves

Crescenta Valley United Methodist Church


It is interesting that this is our topic this week, as I was recently reflecting on the idea of pastoral burnout and watered-down messages.

In general, I believe clergy have a propensity to burn out — period. Due to the high volume of work, responsibility, and emotional and spiritual demands of their congregation it is to be expected, without good boundaries and self-care.

As a pastor, I would work sometimes six to seven days a week. Then, when I arrived home, I would still receive phone calls in the middle of the night or have people drop by when I was trying to get my self-care in. This is a demanding and exhausting role; albeit a call and passion that can also lead to fulfillment and joy. But the bottom line is this: Pastors are often overworked and underpaid.

I made a point as a preacher and teacher to always have my Bible open as I spoke, and to never deviate from what the Word of God said. I felt called to preach hard messages and challenge my congregants. I never felt pressure to water it down. I do, however, have a way of teaching that incorporates appropriate humor and a down to earth style of relating to people about the fact that sometimes what God asks of us is difficult.

I try to relate to our mutual humanity to help people know I understand the challenges of our flesh and emotions. Then I teach the benefits of following God — it is not to take our fun away, but to bless us and increase our joy. That is why God has commandments and guidelines for living: to protect us. I always try to demonstrate how God's word is intended to lead to wholeness.

I am a challenger and fear God's word too much to water it down. So I can say, personally, I never felt pressure to water down messages. I just naturally designed them to relate to humanity, our spiritual challenges, emotional trials, and speckled with real life humor — not anecdotes. Because life is real, hard, emotional and often funny — that is what being a human being, and a child of God, is about.

The Rev. Kimberlie Zakarian

La Vie Counseling Center


Offering comfort to parishioners in a captivating way is one element of successful sermon delivery. But ask yourself: Would you be happy or healthy eating only one kind of food, over and over, week after week? Probably not. And that aptly illustrates the spiritual effects on a congregation of preaching designed only to entertain and make people feel good. The congregation may be pleased for the moment, but they will have little spiritual health to face real-life challenges.

God's word does encourage us and make us feel good. But it also confronts our sins and calls us to sometimes uncomfortable actions. God even told the prophet Jeremiah: "Is not my word like fire? And like a hammer which shatters a rock?" (Jeremiah 23:29). I don't "hammer" on my congregation, but it would be unloving to withhold biblical truth just because it might offend us. It is only the truth, difficult or not, that sets us free.

As a Christian who is called to preach, I acknowledge Jesus Christ as my Lord and as Lord of the church. So his will, revealed in the Bible, is the final authority over what and how I preach. He tells us to make disciples by "teaching them to observe all that I commanded you" (Matthew 28:20), and that includes everything his spirit revealed to the apostles and other Bible writers. The apostle Paul encouraged Timothy the young preacher to "preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction." (2 Timothy 4:2). Leaving out the tough stuff is dishonest to our people and disobedient to our Lord. I like using timely illustrations and humor, but the goal is always to teach what the Bible says, not to entertain.

Jesus is the ultimate example of faithful preaching. He prayed to the father: "the words which Thou gavest Me I have given to them; and they [the true disciples] received them" (John 17:8). He didn't change His message when the crowds left Him (see John 6:65-66). Good preaching pleases God first.

Pastor Jon Barta

Valley Baptist Church


Preparing the Sunday lessons to meet the interests of the congregation is a balancing act. Every congregation is unique, in that there are different ages, interests and cultures represented each Sunday morning. It is a given that you are not going to please everybody who attends the service; but, I believe that spiritual leaders ("clergy") are dedicated to living and sharing divine inspiration with their congregations, as they understand it. They all work very hard at their jobs and share a deep sense of love and dedication to their congregants.

My ministerial training at the seminary for Unity Ministers (Unity School of Christianity and the Assn. of Unity Churches) is based on the teachings of the co-founders of Unity: Charles and Myrtle Fillmore. Therefore, the majority of my Sunday lessons are based on the basic Unity principles of metaphysical interpretation of the Holy Bible, prayer, meditation, affirmations/denials, prosperity and harmonious relationships.

Like my colleagues, I ask for spiritual guidance before I select a topic for the Sunday lessons. Currently, what works best for me is selecting an interesting book for a Sunday morning series, or choosing a theme from the New Testament that seems relevant to current-day challenges that we all meet in our lives.

As a minister, I believe my first priority is to ask Spirit for guidance with the message content, and trust that those "who have ears to hear" will receive the message in love.

The Rev. Jeri Linn

Unity Church of the Valley


What I find challenging is the fact that the churches catering to people's consumerism and fickle faith fill up on Sundays and become even better at continuing in that vein, while churches without many bells and whistles, like mine, struggle doing everything with fewer hands, meanwhile consoling ourselves with the fact that we do value scripture foremost.

Quality is important in any endeavor, and especially in God-work, but we have to remember that it's his business, and we'd better focus on that rather than trying to turn it into just another Sunday option competing with farmer's markets, sports or movie theaters.

If Christians saw themselves as saints, God's army, heaven's change agents, then maybe they'd seek out churches where they could serve and really make a difference. Currently, thousands are happy just sitting and letting ministry happen to them, after which they toss their tip into the basket when some deacon passes it down.

Pastors do get burnout; sometimes it's from seeing their training devalued, recognizing they could've just taken theater and stand-up comedy at Learning Annex and saved themselves a mountain of seminary debt and wasted years of ministerial training.

Others just have to wear too many hats; leading worship, and preaching, and teaching several times a week, and administrating, and playing janitor and whatever else. We're blessed when we have faithful parishioners who will really pitch in, but still the obligations are daunting, and it's hard to maintain quality without quantity. How much more would Christ be glorified if the people would ask not what a church could do for them, but what they could do for God's church? I'll hopefully let you know.

The Rev. Bryan Griem

Montrose Community Church


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