Of Chocolates and Sermons

Of Chocolates and Sermons

We’ve been having conversations recently with laypeople—folks who support theological education—about how Fuller Seminary can respond effectively to the needs of local congregations. One topic that gets raised constantly is preaching. One woman put it bluntly: “Give us better preachers!”

I actually like the preaching I hear on a regular basis in our home congregation. And when I visit other churches I really can’t complain about the sermons delivered in those services–since, typically, I am there as the guest preacher. But Phyllis and I do occasionally attend services as visitors where we hear some pretty bad preaching. On one such occasion, there was a sign in the vestibule of the sanctuary announcing the cancellation of an adult class; the message accurately captured what we experienced in the worship service that morning: “No Kerygma Today.”

In the newspaper the other day there was a feature about the increasingly sophisticated tastes in chocolate. The commentator observed that reviews of various kinds of chocolate are now resembling the evaluations offered by wine-tasters. A few days later, when we shopped at Trader Joe’s, I decided to see if the chocolate shelves had the kinds of one-liners that are posted in the wine section. Sure enough, there were handwritten signs about different kinds of chocolate that did indeed read like the wine descriptions. But since sermons were on my mind, it also occurred to me that those brief chocolate tasting evaluations might apply to sermons as well. “Long-lasting finish.” “Powerful lingering intensity.” “Pleasant aftertaste.”

I don’t think a preacher-rating system, like the ones students set up to evaluate college courses, is a very good idea. I don’t like to see particular preachers being humiliated publicly. But it might be productive for seminaries to ask the hearers of sermons to give confidential feedback to the preaching faculty about the kinds of sermons that are being preached in their congregations. I take seriously the pleas that I have been hearing lately. We need better sermons, and I am convinced that it should be a high priority for theological schools to work at improving the quality of preaching in present-day churches.

Not that the situation is simply dismal. I regularly hear glowing comments about the preaching skills and sermon content of Fuller alums. And I know of graduates of other seminaries who are marvelous proclaimers of the Word. Furthermore, there are innovations in place to work for improvements—one excellent case in point is Lloyd Ogilvie’s “Preaching with Passion” conferences that we sponsor on our Pasadena campus. And again, the preaching at our own local congregation, if I were to give it a sermon-taster’s review, deserves this Trader Joe line about a particular variety of chocolate: “Rich and satisfying.”

I’m glad I seldom hear the kind of preaching that deserves this other one-liner that I saw in the chocolate section: “Slightly nutty”!


  1. Beloved Dr. Mouw,

    I want to share with you that one of Fuller’s alums is Dr. William Wood, III, Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Santa Monica, California. I was a member of Dr. Wood’s church for about 6 years, and still go back there occasionally to say hello to all of my friends It is a miracle, Dr. Mouw, that I, too, now study at Fuller Theological Seminary. I could not have imagined the Holy Spirit working to move me to ministry in those days!

    One of the most powerful sermons I ever heard in my life was when, one Sunday morning, Dr. Wood called Jesus, “Cosmic Jesus.” I believed those lofty words immediately! The Holy Spirit touched my soul. I said to myself, “What a high thinker the Pastor is.” He certainly delivers his sermons well.” I think Dr. Wood has a doctorate in Chemistry, so he melds science and theology, which is fascinating in my mind and his congregation loves him. I heard Dr. Wood preach about 5 years ago. I still remember, hear, his very words. As you know, Dr. Mouw, words are powerful, sermons are powerful. There may be bad preachers out there, but surely there are many, many more good ones. It’s like chocolate, some chocolate is bad, but most of it is oh so good!!

    God bless.

    “Sunny” Murchison
    SOT – M.Div. Recovery Ministry

    Comment by B.A. “Sunny” Murchison — February 12, 2008 @ 4:21 pm

  2. Dr. Mouw, I’ve been enjoying your blog for a while now. (”Long time reader, first time commentor!”)

    I find it helpful to receive feedback regularly whenever I am given an opportunity to preach. Part of my discipline is to never allow people to say to me, “That was a good talk.” My response is always, “What did you like about it?”

    My ministry colleagues who often hear my preaching are also given free reign to critique my message both before the delivery and after.

    My desire to continue to grow in my teaching is to know how to connect better with a generation (I minister on college campuses) that has little Biblical foundations (and this includes the Christians).

    Comment by Eddy E — February 12, 2008 @ 7:28 pm

  3. Sermons from the pulpit I’d like to hear: “Packed with pungent truth” or “Unequivocating robust scent of Pauline theology” or even “Love’s deep vines offer courage to share Jesus to thirsty world.”

    Pastors have a crazy and insane job and they are nuts to go into the profession, and yet we so desperately need them – not to make us feel good but to offer living truth that will sustain us. I really do pray for my pastors that they take courage.

    Comment by Diane Smith — February 13, 2008 @ 10:24 pm

  4. What do you believe is the cause of this decline in preaching? Is the lack of “good” preaching directly correlated with the lack of “Biblical” preaching?

    Comment by Benjamin Leonard — February 14, 2008 @ 1:59 pm

  5. hi Dr. Mouw,
    Thank you for your insightful posts, as they always are. I know one of your favorite historic preachers is Charles Spurgeon; I was wondering who your favorite contemporary preachers are? If you could shoot me a couple of your contemporary favorites, I’d love to listen to them, so to expand my variety of sermon ‘tasting’. Thank you!

    SIS CrossCultural Studies

    Comment by Joe — February 14, 2008 @ 10:37 pm

  6. Dear Rich,

    It appears that my checking in on your blogs and responding is getting to be a habit! I know I won’t reply to every one, but your commentaries have been consistently provocative. Thanks for the time and creative energies you put into each!

    I appreciated your comments on the need for better preaching and on the need for more evaluation and honest feedback to pastors. I agree that preaching, like all else, should be pursued with excellence and done “to the glory of God.”

    I worry, however, that comparing preaching to chocolate or wine tastings might also gloss over a real problem in the Church today, the problem of consumerism. More and more, attenders seem to view “church shopping” as they would any other type of shopping, and Sunday morning is viewed primarily for “what I get out of it.” If the preaching doesn’t leave one feeling inspired and/or if the music is not to one’s particular taste, then a typical response can be to move on and see if the next church delivers a better and/or more entertaining product.

    To the woman who told you, “Give us better preachers,” I would respond with agreement but be quick to add, “Give us better congregants!” Perhaps one focus of better preaching could be the call to shift congregations away from this consumerist approach to Sunday morning. Instead, such preaching could exhort us that the church is called to be a “kingdom of priests” whose foremost “churchly” activity is to offer corporate worship to God (with such worship including preaching, of course!). More generally, such good preaching would hopefully inspire a true countercultural change, whereby Sunday mornings would be viewed as one more place to focus primarily on what one gives to God and others, and only secondarily on what one gets.

    Comment by Jeff Bjorck — February 15, 2008 @ 2:11 pm

  7. I’m afraid my opinion on this one is not mutually held by most seminarians. I wonder what “good” preaching really is. Having graduated from Fuller within recent years I’ve seen a real discrepancy between what my fellow seminarians deemed a good sermon and what the community with which I speak deems a good, and for that matter effective, sermon.

    I won’t get into the details of the discrepancy, but I do wonder if when that woman stated, “give us better preachers,” an image of Erwin McManus popped into her mind, while an image of Barbara Brown Taylor popped into ours.

    Comment by Josh Husmann — February 18, 2008 @ 11:33 am