Cliché Preaching

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Cliché preaching may be symptomatic of shallow, consumerist culture, perpetuating a problem rather than the solution.

Madonna (of pop music fame) did Waltherian preachers no favor with her 1986 hit single, “Papa Don’t Preach.” Still, the Material Girl spotlighted an entrenched cliché that persists today: A perception of preaching as moralistic browbeating; decreeing law at the expense or exclusion of the Gospel. But cliché preaching entails more than that. It includes consumerist expectations for superficial content and, so, cannot deliver the essential doctrines of Christianity. Running in the opposite direction from moralizing sermons, other streams of cliché preaching gravitate toward gospel reductionism. These three forms of “preaching” fail to deliver the dominical mandate to herald, “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27), and properly distinguish law and gospel within the biblical narrative of creation and redemption. In short, cliché preaching is a problem because it cannot meet the needs of the lost or the saved. Instead, preachers, while not wearying their auditors, must retell the world its rightful story.

Clichés come loaded with philosophical baggage. The word cliché is the French vocable for a stereotype printing plate used to reproduce the likeness of a given object.[1] Adapted from its mechanical use for a metaphorical one, clichés distinguish themselves by their capacity to widely transmit an idea or attitude without reflection or a capacity for revision. Clichés stereotype, yes, but they also work in conjunction with Zeitgeist, that is, prevailing moods or schools of thought to influence people on the attitudinal level.[2] In other words, they impact emotions, not thought. “Once a cliché is firmly established in the minds of a particular group of people,” writes sociologist Peter L. Berger, “it attains the quality of taken-for-granted truth and is very difficult to dislodge even by clear empirical counterevidence.”[3] In a post-rational society such as ours, arguments and contemplation give way to emotions and visceral impressions — not a good foundation for truth proclamation.

In a post-rational society such as ours, arguments and contemplation give way to emotions and visceral impressions — not a good foundation for truth proclamation.

Indeed, in a pop-culture, consumeristic society, saturated by mass media, cliché thinking and speaking constitutes much of our public and private discourse. News outlets and commercials offer prime examples of cliché thinking and usage. Rush Limbaugh, through his audio montages, delights to expose the regurgitation of “mainstream media’s” talking points, all employing the exact same catch words and phrases. Limbaugh observes how mass media operates by manufacturing and repeating clichés; the shorter, the better. Devoid of argument and gaunt of substance, these clichés are consumed and, in turn, endlessly repeated by consumers blogging, posting, tweeting, and texting the same reductionistic content. Commercials likewise “tell the story” through cliché images and verbiage: A man’s aversion to changing a diaper; champagne glasses next to a hot tub; the efficient German; a red bow on a Lexus; a Southern Hemisphere child in need. All clichés. All purporting a narrow and unchanging bandwidth of meaning. All pulling from a person’s storehouse of ever-ready clichés to affect an attitude and evoke an emotional response, be it political rancor, sympathy, discontentment, or desire.

According to Uwe Siemon-Netto, clichés, “affect all aspects of human existence: consumption, work, spirituality, eroticism, politics and recreation.”[4] This is because, in an increasingly complex world overwhelmed with information, clichés simplify. They make the world, once again, digestible. Formerly, life was understood in relation to God. The liturgy, catechesis, and preaching that expounded the mysteries and complexities of the Word and Sacraments oriented a person in a shifting world through unchangeable fixtures: The Holy Trinity’s creative and redemptive works. However, the repudiation, neglect, and perversion of Christianity’s liturgical and catechetical traditions bonded to biblical preaching, left humanity with, “vagueness, instability and uncertainty.”[5] Clichés function as substitutes for formerly meaning-rich institutions like the Church, providing guidelines for the interpretation and emotional management of the rapidly changing world around us. Mass media, mass producers, and now academic institutions have become society’s principal generators of clichés, filling voids created by the absence of knowledge and the shared experience of God through the liturgy of the Word proclaimed and sacramented, with preachers happy to take up the cause for yet another cliché, “Relevant sermons.” Cliché preaching, then, may be symptomatic of shallow, consumerist culture, perpetuating a problem rather than the solution. Worse still, cliché preaching may be merely an extension of already cliché catechesis; there being little discernible difference between Sunday School and sermon.

Consider the matters of trinitarian theology and soteriology. Neither can be sustained by reductionistic thinking, let alone mere emotional import. There is a good reason why the Athanasian Creed abides as the longest of the three ecumenical creeds: The articulation of the biblical doctrine of God defies aphoristic thinking. The triunity of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit and their roles in creation and redemption do not neatly fit on a bumper sticker, much less a hashtag — never did, never will. It is no wonder T. D. Jakes, a cliché preacher par excellence, was summoned to repentance for his 2011 “Oneness of God” cliché preaching that departed from orthodoxy. Preaching the doctrine of God requires ample explanation and assertion. The same can be said concerning the doctrine of salvation. Paul McCain in a recent Issues, Etc. program skillfully explained the thorny relationship between faith and works, not so that preachers could parrot well-worn clichés (“faith alone, but not faith that is alone,” “love God and sin boldly,” etc.) but because the matter requires study, depth of thought, and careful articulation if the truth of God’s Word will be rightly conveyed.[6] McCain observed how ministers constantly slip into a form of gospel reductionism, where the Gospel eliminates the third use of the Law to guide the Christian in godly living, even while it accuses every transgression. Gospel reductionism has become the darling of liberal “it’s-all-good” theology, leaving parishioners with the satisfying emotion that, “All is well that ends well,” but without the truth regarding, “sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8). Such preaching, especially in times like these (times of hardship, anxiety, and privation) can only sound a patronizing, indeed, insulting note. Preachers who do not take the time to proclaim the relationship of faith and works, grace and service, because of a commitment to a consumeristic preaching style that tickles the ears with pithy, memorable phrases—clichés—tend to pervert their auditor’s understanding of both Law and Gospel, weakening faith and repentance.

Cliché preaching, like the widespread approach to youth groups, underestimates the intellectual ability of their auditors. Instead of elevating the faith, thought, and devotion of a given congregation by adding a depth-dimension to their sermonic content, moralizing sermons, social or political content (ideology, humanitarianism), and pat-answer Christianity (“Jesus is the answer,” “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life,” “Everything happens for a reason,” etc.), the bias of Zeitgeist aims for the lowest common denominator. In fact, a survey of evangelical preaching found many pastors holding the impression that their people wanted “feel good sermons” and sentimental Ted Talks to move them to action.[7] The resulting effect, however, neglects ministering with the Word of God to both the head and the heart and fails to cultivate thinking Christians.

Cliché preaching, like the widespread approach to youth groups, underestimates the intellectual ability of their auditors.

Preaching and catechesis go together to maximize Christian understanding, devotion, and appreciation of our holy faith. Indeed, there is catechetical preaching (usually during the season of Lent) and preaching catechetically. Both include but also require more than, “the basic principles of the oracles of God” (Hebrews 5:12). To be sure, the Holy Spirit uses the Law and Gospel proclaimed, but the law/gospel distinction is not the only interpretative principle emerging from Scripture. There are others and, indeed, the metanarrative of Scripture requires explanation so the context in which the Law and Gospel are proclaimed affords semblance and orientation for auditors. This means preaching the overarching story of Scripture, with its internal complexity and integrative theology, and not one’s own story; which also has become all too cliché among preachers.

Preaching that employs the clichés of modern politics and entertainment culture, does not and cannot convey the “solid food” of theology, doctrine, typology, and cruciform thinking because it is milk. Such milk does not develop the believer toward maturity, “for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child” (5:13). The preacher of Hebrews, Saint Paul, and every theologian of the cross should strive to bring the people of God to maturity in teaching and preaching, for, “solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (5:14). Such should be the goal of every preacher: Placard the story of God in Christ for the world with ever increasing insights from the whole of Scripture and enacted through the liturgy so as to bring the baptized into greater degrees of maturity.

Minimalistic, shallow, and trite preaching in lockstep to consumerism’s expectations for light fare and slavish obedience to “respecting time” forgets Peter did not offer a snappy, “God is my copilot,” or, “Have your best life now,” homily to his Pentecost auditors, but, “…with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them” (Acts 2:40), so much so that his sermon ended with sacramental action: “So those who received his word were baptized” (2:41). Such things do not happen with words better suited for a T-shirt than a pulpit. Peter’s “many other words” added a depth-dimension to the Word of God, manifesting its multifaceted and paradigmatic subject: God in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.

Let all faithful pastors abandon cliché preaching, leaving it along with Madonna’s 1986 perspectives, by proclaiming “Christ and Him crucified” within the story God committed to writing.

[1] Uwe Siemon-Netto, The Fabricated Luther: Refuting Nazi Connections and Other Modern Myths (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2007), 22.

[2] Anton C. Zijderveld, On Clichés (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979), 6.

[3] Peter L. Berger, “Forward” in Uwe Siemon-Netto, The Fabricated Luther: Refuting Nazi Connections and Other Modern Myths (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2007), 7.

[4] Op. cit., 31.

[5] Zijderveld, On Clichés, 46.

[6] Paul T. McCain, “Lutheran Confessions: The Third Use of the Law in the Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord”, Issues, Etc. Podcast No. 1211, 1 May 2020.

[7] John J. Bombaro, “Is There a Text in This Sermon: A Lutheran Survey of Contemporary Preaching Methods” in Mark W. Birkholz, Jacob Corzine, and Jonathan Mumme, editors, Feasting in a Famine of the Word: Lutheran Preaching in the Twenty-First Century (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2016), 1-2.