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.”

(image taken from “Vic the Vicar“)


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