A Layman’s Humorous Guide to American Evangelical Christianity: The Anatomy of a Church Sermon

by Craig Hartranft on August 28, 2021

in Christianity & The Church, Humor & Satire

SermonFor the non-Christian, a church service can be a confusing event to comprehend. I’ve attended church since my mother’s womb and have been a Christian for 30 plus years and I don’t always understand what’s going on and why. It’s even more confusing when you consider the breadth and depth of what is considered an “Evangelical” church. (Perhaps a topic for another post.)

But beyond the singing of old songs from the 17th and 18th century and the passing of the plate for your money (also called tithes and offerings), the centerpiece of the Christian church service has always been (or used to be depending on how “modern” the church) the event called the sermon. It can be perplexing, but here’s the breakdown, an anatomical dissection as it were, of the a sermon and some info about a church service in general.

First, a sermon is basically a religious and/or spiritual speech by a clergy person, also known as the priest, pastor, minister, or more culturally colloquial “the preacher,” about Christian beliefs, faith, and life based upon, often times, the book commonly known as the Bible. Often a passage of from said Bible is used as the “text” or basis for the particular sermon. It could be a simple as a single verse or something larger like a section from a chapter from a particular book.

In an American Evangelical church, a sermon follows a course of events similar to the following.

0. Prior to the Sermon (Optional)
0.1 Often announcements or recognition of a church member for well-done deeds of faith, usually a person of low self-esteem.
0.2 Humorous comments about a known sporting event, i.e. like the Super Bowl, where church attendees may have conflicting loyalties. Or if one of the pastors is young with family and children, cute folksy tales of his children will be spoken to entertain fellow parents.
0.3 A monetary collection is taken, known in some churches as our tithes and offerings. This collection of coins, currency, personal checks and, in some technological savvy churches, credit cards or crypto-currency, is used to sustain financial needs of the church. These needs generally include things like maintaining the church building and property and paying staff salaries (which includes affording the minister a salary that’s better than what 90% in the congregation make.)
0.4 A prayer (if you’re lucky).

1.0 Sermon Introduction
1.1 Usually a lighthearted personal, historical, or cultural (like a movie or news) reference in the life of the preacher or the people in attendance, most often said to incite laughter, encourage attention, and reaffirm the preacher’s self-esteem: that he’s good at what he’s doing. Clergy have known to be excessively narcissistic with a constant need for attention and approval.
1.2 Or, sometimes, a prayer and/or reading of a passage from the Bible, which constitutes the basis or subject of the sermon. More liberal churches may ignore the Bible and defer to a magazine or newspaper article about some current event or socio-political cultural hot button.;
1.3 Or, sometimes, simply a funny, but benign, joke that should offend nobody, but usually pisses off somebody. Something like this: a pastor, priest, and rabbi walk into a bar. What does the bartender say? “Get fuck outta here!” Just kidding. That’s from the film Grand Torino.

2.0 The Sermon Content in (Generally) Three Parts
Preliminary observations. Most sermons are based on a Bible reference yet as mentioned previously, some preachers have been known to choose their text from the Sunday newspaper so they may be more culturally hip to their congregation. There was a time when sermons were largely “expositional” wherein the reverend would dissect the meaning of the Bible text and then the application of the passage for the listener. This is  largely missing from most Evangelical churches in America, excepting perhaps Southern Baptist churches, the independent-fundamentalist church, or a Presbyterian church. Also young preachers, fresh out of Seminary with little experience, find this type of sermon difficult and so defer to topical sermons (see next) or start with the book of Jonah which can quickly made into four (at the very least) expository sermons. The latter is a staple of preaching classes in Seminary.

Sermons based upon the Bible can be topical: perhaps some theological nuance like the nature of sin, how many angels can fit on the head of the pin, or whether your neighbor is going to Hell because he’s not of your political party. (He is actually, most Christians tend to believe.) The latter sermon style (topical) is more common in our time and, to the untrained ear, can seem more like a motivational or inspirational speech wherein you’re told your just dandy the way you are, God’s is cool with you, but if you really want to be a good victorious Christian and prosper you need to know the preacher’s trade secrets and do what he says.

SermonizingNevertheless, what follows is what should or may happen or may be heard in a sermon:
2.1 You’re bad, you’ve been really bad this past week. You’re a sinner. This applies to both Christians and non-Christians in attendance. If you’re the former, this means you have not lived as a Christian; you suck as Christian; you didn’t say or do the things a Christian should say or do. (Which most Christian already know about themselves and is not helpful.) For the latter, at least for those above the age of 40 years, this is what they expect of going to church: to have existential subjective guilt heaped upon them. This is also known as Roman Catholicism.
NOTE: in this part, an ample use of humorous anecdotes will be said to lighten the load of the guilt being heaped upon you and, again, to make the preacher feel good about what he is doing.

2.2. The remedy for being a bad Christian (or not a Christian at all). There is Jesus (the Christ, Savior, and Son of God) who lived and died to forgive you for being a sinning screw up of a Christian (or non-believer). Moreover, if you trust him, he will save your from your sins and then help you to be start becoming a Christian (in the case of the unbeliever) or be a better Christian (in the case of the current Christian). This is often called the Gospel part of the message wherein by grace through faith in Christ you can live the Christian life.
NOTE: while this is and should be the essence of the Sermon, in some Evangelical and so-called mainstream denominational churches, this part is skipped, optional, or simply a side reflection of little consequence. Mostly then the Sermon is about being a good person who is nice to his neighbor, recycles to save the environment, supports the correct the political agenda, and judges no one especially those on the progressive left of the aforementioned political spectrum. Ergo, in some churches, you can skip to part three, if necessary.

2.3 The preacher tells you the things you should do to be a better Christian. Wherein he gives you old, new, and more things to do as a Christian to please God, often negating the principles of faith and grace declared in the second part (if they were even mentioned; see note above). These activities are cited and encouraged to give each attendee assurance and confidence that they are actually doing some good in their Christian life and so pleasing God. This is known as works righteousness: God only accepts you if you are consistently and constantly doing his will, obeying his Word, and acting like Jesus. (Which, logically, is inherently impossible since he is perfect in all ways and we’re excellent sinners.) Unfortunately, once more you will fail at doing these things, and so you will come back next week to repeat the process (including giving to the weekly offering).

3.0 Sermon Conclusion Which Often Includes One or More of the Following Events:
3.1 A closing prayer where some or all points in the Sermon Content are summarized, in case you were busy taking notes (just kidding; nobody does that anymore, just like bringing a Bible to church), fell asleep, or you were texting, playing a game, or posting to social media on your phone. Or just plain bored out of your skull by the content or, more likely so for the current Christian, being run down for 40 minutes for not being a good Christian.
3.2 A closing song or hymn which reinforces the points of the Sermon Content.
3.3 A Gospel call to faith in Christ to the heathen, pagans, Muslims, terrorists, the overly political, and backsliding Christians. This is also known, to some older folks, as “the altar call” but that’s a subject for another post. To the younger generation it usually implies that a plea for money is around the corner.
3.3 In some churches, the passing of the collection plate a second time. Ergo, if you listened to the sermon and are ready to apply what you’ve learned to your Christian living, you will put a crowbar to your wallet and fork over some more dough. It’s the Christian thing to do.

And there you have it: sarcasm aside, the nature of an Evangelical sermon. Enjoy your first, or next, visit to your favorite church.