Preaching Articles

In 1920, University of Notre Dame’s football star, George Gipp, contracted pneumonia and died just weeks after being named an All-American.

According to his coach, the legendary Knute Rockne, Gipp had told him on his deathbed that when the time came that the Irish were in a desperate situation, he should invoke Gipp’s name and ask them to “win one for the Gipper.” Eight years later, Rockne did just that when Notre Dame trailed an undefeated Army squad. An emotionally charged Notre Dame team rallied to win the game.

Grand, inspiring orations—whether from politicians, generals, coaches or religious leaders—seem to have the power to change lives, even to change history. This has certainly been true since before the days of William Shakespeare.

What has changed is the Hollywoodization of such speeches. Rockne’s speech was immortalized in a popular film with a young actor named Ronald Reagan playing the part of George Gipp. Since then, stirring, fact-polished, theatrically staged orations, backed by music designed to stir the emotions, have become a routine part of the motion picture media. So many movies now lean heavily on a brilliantly crafted, insightful, perfectly timed speech to change mice into men, the morally bankrupt into heroes.

I can’t help but suspect this has had an influence on preachers. My guess is that most of us have in the back of our minds a vision of what a powerful, dynamic sermon ought to accomplish. We feel the pressure to emulate these life-changing rhetorical exercises that lift spirits to the heavens.

Unfortunately, that bar is set too high. In almost all cases, that vision is as unrealistic as a Hollywood set. Oration such as Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is memorable precisely because it is so incredibly rare.

The longer I have been at one parish, the more I begin to realize that a good sermon is not likely to achieve a full-throated roar from the congregation that, through those words, suddenly finds courage and inspiration to charge into the fray and do tremendous deeds of love and mercy.

It seems that preaching is more along the lines of a modest, largely unknown football coach from my area of the country, a man named Jerry Kill. Through social media, I’ve heard some of Kill’s speeches. They contain a lot of energy, but that is not unusual in the football arena. I haven’t heard anything in them that would make me want to run out and smash down a wall.

What is effective about Kill is a simple motto: “Brick by Brick.” He knows very well that turning around the fortunes of a team that has struggled for decades will not happened through a dynamic speech. It will happen, and is happening at the University of Minnesota, through the cumulative effect of saying and doing the right things.

I believe that is true of preaching. There may be the occasional lost soul sitting out in the pews in such desperate need of hope and love that an especially stirring message from the pulpit will inspire him or her to new life. If that happens, then praise God.

More likely, good preaching will achieve its effect by adhering to the “brick by brick” approach. When a congregation hears the love of God in Jesus Christ proclaimed time and time again, that will have a cumulative effect, as long as the preacher can do it with enough insight and imagination that the congregation will keep listening and gradually incorporate what they have.

I know it doesn’t make for grand theater. But then we pastors are not called to win Academy awards in screen-writing. We are called to help build the kingdom, brick by brick.

I know there is more appeal in being the silver-tongued virtuoso who can rouse people to action by asking them to win one for the Gipper. But there’s a danger in getting caught up in trying to manufacture Hollywood moments. The congregation is going to be better served in the long run by a pastor who can lay those bricks faithfully, patiently and skillfully.

Nathan Aaseng serves as pastor at St. John's Lutheran Church in Eau Claire, WI. He has had more than 170 books published, sacred and secular, for readers from 8 to adult. His latest work is The Five Realms, an epic fantasy based on 1 Corinthians 1:27.

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Jason Davis

commented on Jan 28, 2015

Thanks for the message. The sports analogy my mentors used with me was that a pastor who is preaching weekly doesn't always hit a home run. However, if we hit a single each week we will consistently drive home runs. My goal as a pastor is to be focused on a consistent growth of the lives of those I touch. For some that is moving toward following Jesus, for others it is growing in that walk to greater maturity. Brick by brick. The University of Tennessee is using the same motto and being near Nashville I hear that a lot as well!

Rev. Phyllis Pottorff-Albrecht, United Brethren Communi

commented on Jan 28, 2015

Years ago, when Sesame Street became an educational sensation, many teachers complained that, after watching Sesame Street, too many students were expecting their teachers to be able to use the same sort of entertainment emphasis in the ordinary classroom which the students were watching on Sesame Street - and the average classroom - plus the average teacher - were simply not equipped to meet the entertainment expectations of their students. The same has been true for parents for many years - the average parent is not really equipped to compete with Hollywood for their children's attention - but children increasingly expect all adults to be able to provide the same entertainment attractions which the children can find being provided by the entertainment industry. However, instead of trying to compete with Hollywood for the congregation's attention, we believe that most pastor's would benefit by reminding themselves that most lost souls are not brought to Christ by preaching - but by pastoring. After the Apostle Paul met Jesus personally on the Damascus Road, he did NOT immediately go to an evangelistic meeting and he did not hear a great sermon being preached. Instead, Annanias went to Paul and ministered to Paul's needs. Perhaps modern churches are experiencing great struggles because modern church leaders have placed too much emphasis on preaching - and not enough emphasis on the art of pastoring.

Charles Reed

commented on Jan 29, 2015

Unfortunately, we live in a world where the Super Bowl ads take center stage, sometimes even diminishing the football contest. It's the glitz and the glamor...and Christians have a hard time keeping up with the expectations of having their socks blown off every time they go to church. The entertainment factor competes with the message...and the message can be diminished as the result. What was it Wesley said about him being on fire for the Lord and people coming just to see him "burn?"

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