Planes, Trains and Asinine sermons

Churches are funny places, aren’t they? If you’ve been around the church for some time, I am confident you will have a reasonable stock of funny stories about goings on. I don’t think it’s unique to any particular tradition.

For example, Andrew Dow – a former curate at St Saviour’s Church in Chadderton (a church in which I have preached a few times) – has this to offer. Watch out for the innocently withering question: ‘do you find any use for this “very clever skill” in any of the services you take?’

One of my favourite stories comes from a time my wife and I had newly moved to an area and we were checking out local churches. We found one near us to try and decided to pop along. The particular week we went, they had a speaker deputising from a mission agency. So, encouragingly (we thought), they clearly had a desire to support mission on some level.

As the guy got up to speak, it became clear very quickly that most of his talk was just a series of stories from the field. On one level, you might think, there may have been some good content in that. But clearly most of what we were being told was about the delivery of goods and services to otherwise hard to access places and how the particular agency managed to do that where others couldn’t.

Whilst the seemingly endless stories of places they have made goods drops went on and on, we wondered if the talk was going to eventually land on a valuable point. Perhaps there would be some gospel content? Please let there be some gospel content!

Finally, the speaker reeled round to his big point. He underscored it so we wouldn’t miss it. He said, ‘if there’s only one thing you take away from today, let it be this…’ Here it is. Here is the big point. Finally, he’s going to pull all these stories from the field together and offer some gospel application. Listen up kids, this is the crux of what we ought to take away. This is what he said:

If there’s only one thing you take away from today, let it be this: don’t let anyone ever tell you, “you can’t fly a plane”!

Then came the final song and the service ended. That was the key thing we were to take home.

Now, you might be thinking, that’s not even true! There are a whole load of conditions that mean, quite clearly, you can’t fly a plane. For example, if you’re epileptic, you specifically cannot fly a plane. So, even as a statement of fact, the big point was not even true.

But the bigger issue was that the point was utterly asinine and devoid of gospel content. If we were at a meeting run by the Civil Aviation Authority, it might be something you would say (though I refer you to the previous paragraph). But, who comes to church to hear that? Even if anyone was actually concerned about whether or not they could fly a plane (?!), is that what they need to hear? Do they need to hear the life-changing news of how anybody can fly a plane or is there some other life-changing news, that the church is uniquely placed to highlight, that might have been more beneficial for everyone?

The sad fact is, most people don’t come to church very often these days and so, when they do, it’s important to make sure we give them something worthwhile. I couldn’t help but feel, ‘don’t let anyone ever tell you that you can’t fly a plane’ is probably not it.

Two lessons seem worth taking from this. First, make sure you have something worth saying. Half an hour is a long time to listen to something that has no real value. If at the end of a sermon people are left wondering, ‘so what?’ or ‘is that it?’ we need to have a rethink.

Second, we need to make sure that we major on what the church can uniquely major on. If the essence of your message could be delivered by almost anybody else, in almost any other setting, without any great difficulty, you need to ask yourself whether you are acting as a church at all. It is not uncommon to hear people say things like this:

If your sermon could be preached at a local mosque or synagogue, it is not authentically Christian. If you only mention Jesus in such a way as a Muslim could agree with everything you say, you have not preached a Christian sermon.

I think we can safely say, if your entire sermon could be repurposed as a lecture for the CAA, we probably haven’t preached a sermon at all.