Wednesday, June 06, 2012

sermon bingo

Just seeing the phrase makes me angry. Seeing it as a featured article in the UUWorld made me angry and sad. “Sermon Bingo.” Author Cheryl Gardner (who is undoubtedly a wonderful person; I am not unhappy with her) wrote about teachers playing “buzzword bingo” while their principal blathered on. As a young engineer, I would often joke about such a game, noting the many empty phrases and “meaningless jargon” that we had to hear from “the suits.” Seeing that concept applied to a sermon–which is supposed to be filled with meaning, supposed to be relevant and reverent and engaging–made me angry and sad. Part of this is surely defensiveness around my profession (and my self-identity as a preacher). I also think it is more. If people perceive that our sermons are merely empty words, then there is something wrong–with the people speaking, and with the people who accept the meaningless blather without demanding something better. I believe that Ms. Gardner was not serious in her suggestion. I think her column was more about what words and concepts might be central to our tradition. She suggests a list beginning with “justice, equality, acceptance…” I agree that most of her list are worthy concepts, but if we are over-using them, if they have become toothless, if our sermons are not providing real sustenance, real comfort and real challenge, then I mourn for our movement. BTW, there already is a “big church bingo” app for the iPhone. Despite the claims of the mother who invented it, I do *not* believe that it helps children pay attention to the sermon. Well–they probably are paying more attention, to earn the candy or other post-worship reward, but I doubt that they’re engaging those words, or applying them to their lives. What they *are* learning is to disconnect the words from their contexts, the sounds from their meanings. In other words, the game is a self-fulfilling prophecy, ensuring that the preached words become empty. I have preached sermons where certain sub-groups of the congregation are to make a specific noise or action, when they hear their “magic word.” Perhaps I am fooling myself, but I think this kind of activity, while somewhat similar to “sermon bingo” actually promotes engagement with the material and a communal feel, as various groups interact. Again, I think Ms. Garnder was trying to point out the positive words and phrases that come up frequently in our sermons and services. So, in that spirit, here are some that appear in virtually all of my services: beings, breaths, challenge, comfort, compassion, courage, evolving, feed, feel, give, growing, help, relax, think, together. I like to believe that those words are being taken into the heads and hearts of the congregation I serve, helping them to survive, and helping them to thrive. I want to believe that these words can help us to transform ourselves, each other, and our world. That’s much better outcome than a piece of gum for a “bingo.” (original post, with links, at So May We Be)


At 6:00 PM, Anonymous Amy said...

I also dislike the idea of thinking of the sermon as the kind of jargon-filled blather we hear too often in corporate- or educationspeak. If my preaching is striking anyone that way, I hope they'll tell me about it so I can change it.

Giving children a "sermon bingo" card, on the other hand, is a great idea. Easter is the one service a year we do it, and for a simple reason: it is an intergenerational service yet I don't want to preach at a level appropriate for six year olds. There are other times that I do that and I think I make it engaging to both adults and children, but on Easter I want to be free to dig into issues that are important to the adults but may leave children confused or bored.

Our brilliant MRE, Dan Harper, introduced "sermon bingo" for those kids who are old enough to want to stay, but young enough to find a 20-minute, adult sermon somewhat . . . driftworthy. Like coloring pages, it gives them something to do during the parts of the service that are simply not designed to be child-friendly. Honestly, I don't worry that they are learning to hear words out of context. If they had to sit there without anything age-appropriate to do, I would worry that they would be learning that church is boring.

Shouting "bingo!" is strictly forbidden, though I did see a restrained fist-pump one time.

At 12:21 PM, Blogger Chalicechick said...

The interesting thing is that I can see this going two ways. I'd kinda love to see a "buzzword bingo"-style card that listed various cliches that we tend to use without thinking. (I've never heard the phrase "Speak truth to power" from anyone who seemed especially lacking in power to me, and I've never heard "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable" from anyone who wasn't quite comfortable-seeming themselves with no apparent concern about upcoming affliction.)

Most of the really good cliches one hears more in lay services anyway as ministers tend to be hip to that kind of thing. I think what Ms. Gardner actually is going for is something much more like looking for deeper and universal themes in the sermon and a way to actively listen.

In any given service I'm either tweeting interesting insights I've picked up or sewing and I'm not trading in either of those habits for a bingo card anytime soon, but I think there's the seed of a good idea in there.



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