Originally published as Inoculating Against the Gospel on Preachers Institute in January 2010, this article is one of our most popular and clearly belongs in the “Bad Sermons 101” category. The questions a preacher must consider when preparing his sermon are many. One such question must be: “Is my sermon a vaccination against sin and indifference, or an inoculation against conversion?” Though we certainly believe that vaccinations are good science, the idea that a small, dead amount of something which is good (in this case, the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ) can be used to create resistance to the very living thing which heals and cures – and therefore is bad – make this an excellent metaphor for instruction.
Often a preacher must decide just how much ‘salt’ his congregation or listening audience can stomach (see my article, Sermons and Snickers Bars for more about ‘salting’ your sermons). Just as often, a preacher can default to a minimum announcement of the Gospel to his hearers, presenting a minimum of Gospel platitudes or moralizing, but staying a minimum safe distance from possibly incendiary, but basic, Christian topics (hell and how to get there, tithing and the other 90%, the moral teaching of the Church, etc) which are necessary for life, faith and spiritual growth in the Spirit. Such mini-sermons are often called ‘sermonettes,’ and parishes get to expect sermonettes, as opposed to real sermons.
There is an old saying among preachers (variously attributed to A.W. Tozer, Michael Green, John Stott, etc.) that
‘Sermonettes make Christianettes’
and Christianettes can not endure embarrassment, let alone ridicule, oppression or persecution.
Christianettes have no personal conversion experience, and are lulled into the worst kind of spiritual complacency by the self-knowledge of their own apparent righteousness. Christianettes bear the kind of heart that the Lord warned against in the Parable of the Sower.
So, longer sermons is the cure?
No, sermonettes can be more lengthy than sermons! A long sermonette just takes more time to say less. Do longer sermons produce stronger Christians? No, but better ones do.
Take, for example:
• The Ten Commandments has roughly 180-320 words (depending of which version you read.), and created a body of law that continues to nurture the faithful 5000 years after it was written.
• The St. Crispin’s Day speech from Shakespeare’s play Henry V, one of the most riveting exhortations ever written, is only 407 words.
• Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was only 272 words and it helped shape a country on the brink of tearing itself apart.
It is not the length of the sermon that matters one way or another, but its power.
Truth is, short sermons take a short time to prepare, longer sermons generally take longer to prepare, but excellent sermons, short or long, take a very long time to prepare. In this scale, sermonettes –regardless of their length – require almost no serious time to prepare, let alone prayer, reflection, or study.
In other words, the sermonette is powerless.
The deeper problem is that small ‘sermonettes’ can actually perform a different, darker function. They can actually inoculate your listeners against the Gospel.
The Anti-Gospel Inoculation
Just as a vaccination contains a small portion of dead virus, and prepares the body in advance to resist the actual living virus, so the sermonette can actually inoculate the listener to the living experience of the Gospel. The sermonette is powerless – just like a dead virus.
Having received a small part of a comfortably dead, moralizing devotional that warms the stomach, and tickles the vanity, but requires no action from the heart, the Christian soul can come to believe in very short order that the Gospel is about moralizing, feeling good about yourself, and doing well. Worse, it can present the goal of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as being a nice person (whatever that means), rather than repentance, conversion and holiness.
Additional sermonettes, once this has taken hold, can act as ‘booster shots,’ strengthening the spiritual immune response of genuine Christian conversion, repentance, and piety.
How To Avoid Inoculating Your Audience
Rule Number One is always the same: PREACH THE GOSPEL.
Rule Number Two: See Rule One.
After all, if you’re not preaching the Gospel, what are you doing?
The Gospel can be summed up in the words of St. Paul in 1 Cor. 15:3-8.
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”
The proclamation of the Gospel is not limited to this, of course, but this is the Gospel at its most basic, and most important. It is the Gospel St. Paul called preaching ”Christ crucified.” To put it more simply:
“Jesus Christ, crucified and risen for our salvation.”
Pious devotionals, moral messages, calls to action are all important parts of a preachers arsenal, but can also replace the real preaching of the Gospel. That is, you can preach imposters for the Gospel.
That counts as inoculation, too. Mostly because your listeners, convinced that they have heard and understood the Gospel (after all, they hear you preach, and they expect you to tell them), may not have heard or understood it at all. As the Lord said in the Gospel according to St. Matthew 6:23;
“If the light in you is darkness, how great is that darkness!”
The danger is that when they hear the real thing, they will either reject it as a slant on the truth – and therefore offensive, (God forbid) or they will assume that you are incompetent, and incapable of preaching the real Gospel. This second group will leave and go where the Gospel is really being preached and explained.
The question every preacher must ask himself is:
Is your sermon a vaccination against sin and indifference, or an inoculation against conversion?
You know all that theological education you studied so hard to acquire in Seminary? Now is the time to distribute it, in small, lightly-salted bite-sized chunks. Pepper your sermons with these for a year, returning time and again to similar themes and teachings.
In this way, rather than inoculate your hearers against the Gospel, you will be inoculating them against sin, vice, ignorance and self-righteousness.
Fr. John A. Peck is the Director of the Preachers Institute.