Awkward Theological Moments: The Difference Between a Speech And a Sermon

One time after guest preaching at a Friday night service, someone sauntered up, shook my hand with both of his, and said with all sincerity, “That was a great speech.” On some level I knew he was a baby Christian, but on a deeper level I knew I had failed my task.

When we teach or preach or listen to a sermon, it is absolutely difficult not to view it as a performance or pep rally. At conferences we “grade” the speaker like an Amazon rating and consider it a badge of doctrinal authority if we download certain podcasts. People also naturally float towards charisma, adrenaline, and spiritual highs. The funny speaker is seen as the true speaker. And while humor, passion, and personality can be used to draw people in, ultimately it must be towards Jesus alone. A speech speaks on itself; a sermon points to Him.

I understand this is hard to sort out, particularly in a consumerist culture that treats even the church like winetasting. It’s a struggle for both pastors and churchgoers to draw that line. So here are three major differences between a sermon and a speech to give us discernment for both preachers and the congregation.

1) A speech is informational, while a sermon is experiential, relational, and transformational.

There is a secret frustration among pastors because the church hardly remembers the sermons. The listeners will remember the stories and illustrations; they often see a stage performance instead of God’s message. But a sermon is not always meant to be remembered point by point, as if we’re learning how to change a tire or do heart surgery. I hardly even remember my own sermons (hah). And that’s okay.

Speeches, no matter how eloquent or emotional, can only relay information and maybe build a pseudo-relationship with the speaker. A lecture is meant to be remembered for exams and papers. Speeches and lectures have a functional purpose that is shrinkwrapped into themselves.

A real sermon is meant to experience the bigness of God. The sermon ushers in the holy moment when we are overwhelmed by His Glory, when we feel truly alive in Him. A small part of that is by relating to the speaker, but mostly it’s to step out of the way for God to wholly consume the place.

I don’t remember many sermons I’ve heard over the years, but I do remember encountering God each week, slowly building a deeper connection with Him. The transformation happened as I increasingly gained a more accurate picture of God. It actually works better when the speaker is pointing away from himself.

This does not mean that information is unimportant. It doesn’t mean that a sermon is all delivery, technique, and passion. Bad content no matter how well delivered is shallow junk food that won’t last past Monday. But even great content won’t be recalled word for word. The encounter with God is what counts.

2) A speech tries to say everything, but a sermon gives one more facet of an infinite subject.

When a pastor tries to say every single thing about the Bible in one sermon, it feels like a desperate campaign to make sure you get it. As if covering the entire Christian doctrine from pneumatology to eschatology is somehow more doctrinally sound. But there’s always next week. Pastors wallow in depression after a “sermon fail” because they can’t imagine ever recovering from a bad illustration or an awkward phrase. So: try again next week.

A sermon cannot be a super-balanced, throw-in-the-kitchen-sink platform for every relevant topic in the world. Each week is like building a quilt for a larger tapestry, climbing the infinite mountain of God to understand even a glimpse of who He is. If an MD or a PhD takes half a dozen years or more to obtain, we shouldn’t expect the pastor to brilliantly cover the whole scope of God in a month of church attendance.

This is why it’s important to give a new church a fair amount of time before deciding if it’s the right one. A nuanced pastor will take his time unveiling the multiple dimensions of God; a good pastor will also follow up on tough issues by addressing your questions. We shouldn’t immediately call foul on him after one or two sentences over a huge topic, as if this week’s sermon is the final thing the pastor has to say on it.

A speech necessarily has to cram as much as possible. The sermon does not. We can’t cram God into a single Sunday service. You don’t fit an ocean into a saltshaker.

3) A grounded sermon will cut deep while at the same time set you free.

Jesus preached in such a way that people walked away. No one likes to hear about their own sin, failure, and shortcomings. No one especially wants to hear about the perfect holiness of God. Every prophet in the Bible was beaten, thrown into jail, or martyred. Not a single preacher in the Bible had a celebrity pulpit where the majority of people “liked” his page, and at the end of Jesus’ life on the cross, he didn’t have a single follower.

If only the listeners could have pushed past their pride: because at the other end of conviction is freedom.

Jesus’ disciples asked, “This is a hard saying, who can understand it?” Of course, Jesus explained it to them. He not only preached for conviction, but preached how to act on it. He gave them the Holy Spirit, he modeled compassion, and he gave real wisdom for tough times. Jesus set people free from their sin, from selling themselves short, from a small version of themselves. He set them free towards a reckless joy in serving and giving and singing.

To simply speak on shortcomings would have left them hanging; to only arouse emotions would be sentimental selfishness; to use guilt, fear, and shame ultimately changes nothing. A speech always remains at those superficial levels, often describing the problem with facile solutions or wrongly rooted hope. A sermon anchors it all on Jesus, our only hope in a fallen frustrated world.

Jesus preached the way but also gave them a way to the way. He showed them the What, the Why, and the Power for How. Any speech, no matter how good, is always isolated within its own vacuum of inspirational energy. It might work for a little while but is only a sled with no engine. Jesus is the wind in the sails, the designer of the boat, the captain of the ship. The sermon makes this clear. The pastor who knows it will be fearless to preach on sin, but also gracious to preach on Christ. I pray diligently for both.

Further reading:
– Four Obstacles To Break On The Way To A Breakthrough
– Four Ways To Sell Out On The Bible
– The Worst Illustration Ever: The Christian Horror Story
– Hey Preacher: That Loser You’re Talking About Is Me
– Guest Post: Knowing good preaching when you hear it
– Guest Q&A: Losing Faith in Guilt

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4 thoughts on “Awkward Theological Moments: The Difference Between a Speech And a Sermon

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