When the Rev. Wallace Charles Smith graduated from seminary in the mid-1970s, he took pains to fashion sermons that were "theologically correct." But when he climbs into his pulpit at Shiloh Baptist Church in Northwest Washington these days, his preaching has a very different goal.
"Now I know that people don't give a hang about that," Smith said. "They want to hear biblical stories told in fresh, imaginative ways and applied to their own experience. People are concerned about paying their mortgages, about whether we're going to war or not, about families breaking up, about taxes. For preaching to be effective, it's got to move in that orbit. What a good sermon has to do is meet a human need."
Good preaching, religious scholars and pastors say, is more vital than ever as Americans, no longer inclined to stay moored for life to one denomination, explore a diverse and competitive spiritual marketplace in search of a meaningful experience.
And yet, these experts say, too many sermons do not meet the standard Smith describes. Lacking an overarching theme or dwelling on obscure biblical information, many sermons leave listeners uninspired, impatient and bored. What should be a religious service's boon more often is its bane.
"A lot of times, sermons are answering questions that nobody is asking," said Smith, recalling how the legendary Protestant preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick "once said that in all his years in pastoring, he had yet to see anybody come to church on Sunday passionately concerned about what happened to the Jebucites."
Increasingly, however, pastors are getting help through books, Web sites and workshops -- some of them sponsored by mainline denominations and seminaries -- to improve the caliber of their preaching.
Most of these resources stress that good sermons link the lessons of the biblical text to people's daily experiences and challenge listeners to put their faith into action. Good sermons use contemporary cultural references to keep people's attention. Above all, they leave people feeling that they have witnessed something that came from the preacher's own spiritual life.
Effective preaching requires personal disclosure by the preacher, said the Rev. Pierce Klemmt, rector of Alexandria's Christ Church. "I'm not talking about Jimmy Swaggert open-your-heart-and-confess-your-sins type preaching," Klemmt explained. " . . . But good preaching is being vulnerable to your community. If they don't sense that you struggle with the same things they struggle with, then they're not going to give you the ears to hear."
Most sermons used to be heavy on theology and theory. "The typical mainline sermon in the 1950s would have been fairly didactic," said Thomas G. Long, Bandy professor of preaching at Emory University's Candler Theological School in Atlanta and a nationally recognized preacher. "Students were taught to take the biblical text, find the idea, break it into its constituent parts and let those parts be the parts of the sermon."
That kind of sermon is still preached in places but is not prevalent. Yet although many pastors try to be more relevant in their sermons, their efforts often fall flat. Experts say ministers are often too busy with other pastoral duties to do the necessary hard work of reflecting on Scripture as they prepare their sermons. Some preachers, out of fear of offending the congregation, avoid taking strong moral or political stands. And several pastors say too many of their colleagues have a misguided belief that sermons are primarily for enhancing their listeners' spiritual self-esteem.
"I don't think Jesus spent two seconds thinking about his own self-esteem, but most homilies have to do with 'I'm okay, you're okay' stuff, and I've preached all of those homilies," said the Rev. Raymond B. Kemp. Powerful sermons, Kemp adds, instead remind listeners of "the constant call of Jesus to conversion and to action."
Kemp is coordinator of Preaching the Just Word, a program conceived by the Rev. Walter J. Burghardt, a nationally acclaimed Jesuit preacher, because of his concern over the thin content of much Catholic preaching. The program, which operates out of Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, offers five-day workshops that show priests and ministers how to address social justice issues more effectively in their sermons.
This approach keeps congregations engaged but not always in agreement with the sermonizer. "I just got off a call from a woman who said I used the pulpit for political purposes," said the Rev. John J. Enzler, pastor of Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church in Potomac and a graduate of Kemp's program.
The woman, he said, was upset about a recent sermon in which he questioned going to war in Iraq and imposing capital punishment on the accused sniper suspects. But Enzler said such complaints should not deter pastors from preaching about difficult moral issues. "It's pretty easy to just get up and talk about Scripture," he said. "What is not so easy is to say, 'I think the war in Iraq is wrong,' or 'Capital punishment for . . . snipers is wrong.' "
In addition to sermon content, the pastor's delivery is getting more attention from teachers of preaching. Their classes emphasize storytelling and use of everyday symbols and references.
"Jesus did that time after time," said the Rev. Bass Mitchell, a United Methodist pastor in Hot Springs, Va. "He said, 'Look at this cup or this loaf of bread, or this sheep, or mustard seeds or fish.' "
Mitchell, who said he likes lots of drama in his sermons, recalled that one year, he rewrote the Christmas story from King Herod's point of view, portraying the biblical nemesis of Jesus as "the first Christmas grinch." He and members of his congregation read the script aloud.
The Rev. Anne Yarbrough, pastor of St. Luke's United Methodist Church in Northwest Washington, said she has been inspired by Garrison Keillor's model of storytelling. "He's made an enormous difference for preachers because of his capacity to convey a message without slamming you over the head with it," she said.
Teaching clergy to tell stories with their whole body is the goal of Gillian Drake, a Chevy Chase theater director who teaches "Delivering the Spoken Word." It is one of the most popular courses at Washington National Cathedral's College of Preachers.
Drawing on her acting and directing experience, Drake teaches her clergy students breathing and voice techniques. Another exercise involves conveying an emotion or idea using gibberish or no words at all, which forces the students to express their message with their bodies.
A good sermon's length depends on the expectations of the congregation. Most mainline denominations advise clergy to keep their sermons between 10 and 15 minutes. But African American congregations often want a longer experience. Shiloh's Smith said that if he left the pulpit after 10 minutes, his congregation "would feel shortchanged."
Black worshipers often shout "Am-en!" and "Preach it!" or "Holy Spirit, help him!" to convey their thoughts about what they're hearing.
In white congregations, on the other hand, reactions usually are more indirect. "When you give a good homily," Enzler said, "it gets very, very quiet in the church. You know people are listening. There's no rustling, no coughing. When there's a lot of coughing, I want to get out of that pulpit. That's when I bail out pretty quickly."
But preachers don't get much candid feedback, and thus many don't realize that they're numbing their audiences. "The irony about preaching is that very few people have actually talked to the people who listen to sermons to determine what they find engaging and what puts them off," said the Rev. Ronald J. Allen, who teaches preaching at Indianapolis's Christian Theological Seminary.
Allen is directing one of the first systematic nationwide efforts to find out what makes for effective preaching: a poll of 260 congregants at 29 churches. Results of the recently concluded survey, which was funded by the Lilly Endowment, will be published next fall.
Most preachers agree that good sermonizing requires plenty of preparation but that finding the time can be hard. Many make use of some of the numerous Web sites, such as www.desperatepreacher.com, that offer sermon materials to harried ministers.
"Every week it's difficult to come up with something meaningful for people, to come up with hooks that are related to everyday life," said Mitchell, the United Methodist pastor in Hot Springs, explaining why he launched www.homiliesbyemail.com to help colleagues. For a subscription fee of $39.95, it provides busy pastors with sample sermons and Bible lessons.
The Rev. Charles L. Wildman, pastor of Rock Spring Congregational United Church of Christ in Arlington, said he avoids Web sites and other published preaching aids because that means "you don't do your own struggle and you end up preaching canned material. What I've discovered is that I need to do my own struggle and wrestle with the text."
He begins preparing during a summertime study leave, when he makes a folder for each Sunday of the coming liturgical year, filling it with interesting articles or quotes. He also keeps a journal in which he jots anecdotes and personal reflections.
Each week, after giving a Tuesday Bible lesson on the next Sunday's gospel to interested church members, Wildman begins writing his sermon. On Sunday, he takes the triple-spaced manuscript to the pulpit and refers to it but does not read it word for word. By Monday morning, it is up on Rock Spring's Web site.
But no matter how much time preachers spend preparing their sermon or how much they improve their delivery techniques, many say success ultimately depends on the sincerity of the person in the pulpit.
A good sermon "needs to be from the heart and soul of the preacher," Wildman said. "It's a true witness to faith and to the authenticity of that faith as it struggles with the life issues that we all live."