Empty House

Welcome to the Kenilworth Union Church Sanctuary. Bill moves his fireside chat away from his home and into the sanctuary to share what it’s really like preaching to an empty church.

Hi friends, my name is Bill Evertsberg and I’m one of the ministers at Kenilworth Union Church, and this is Doogie, my assistant minister. You know, it’s almost June, and it’s 81 degrees outside, so I think it’s time to retire these fireside chats. Maybe we’ll do a garden-side chat next week. I don’t know, I haven’t thought much about it.

But as you can see, today we’re in our very own Kenilworth Union sanctuary because I wanted you to experience what Jo and Katie and Susan and I experience when we lead virtual worship in this room without all of you.

Many of you have asked me what it’s like to preach to an empty house, and I really, really appreciate that question because it means my interrogators understand that preaching a sermon is not a monologue. It’s a dialogue.

Maybe at the beginning of quarantine you saw Stephen Colbert try to present his Late Show at an empty Ed Sullivan Theater, way back at the beginning of quarantine. That didn’t go very well. It didn’t feel very natural, so since then, Kimmel and Fallon and Colbert have been presenting their late shows from their own homes, in a much less formal way, sometimes with their kids and their dogs. Imagine trying to do stand-up comedy without an audience.

And so I appreciate that question, what it’s like to preach to an empty house, because it means you understand that preaching a sermon is not like giving a lecture. It is a conversation between the congregation and the preacher. Now, the preacher does most of the talking—all of the talking, of course—but that doesn’t make it any less of a conversation.

And so the preacher gets all of her energy from the congregation’s feedback, right? She sees your open and attentive faces, she sees your obviously listening ears, some of you are nodding your heads and some of you are taking notes, and maybe a parishioner nudges her pew-mate when the preacher says something relevant and salient. And so a sermon is a conversation, or a dialogue, not a monologue.

Now, this is more evident in other traditions than our own, right? For instance, in the black church, where the sermon is presented in a ‘Call and Response’ pattern. The preacher calls, and the congregation responds. So the congregation will say, “Amen!” “Preach it, brother!” “Praise the Lord!” “You can do it!” “Let us have it!” That call-and-response pattern.

Here, not so much. We are a hyper-Caucasian congregation, but even preachers like I need someone to laugh at their jokes and to weep at their sad stories. The congregation has its own role to play in the sharing of the good news.

So, in my Connecticut congregation, I had two people—two faithful parishioners—who had large, raucous, big laughs. Jonathan and Sandy were their names. They weren’t related to each other, but they were both faithful parishioners at my church, and I could count on them every Sunday—if they were in town, they were in church every Sunday—and I could count on them to give a demonstrative, audible response to my attempts at humor. In fact, people accused me of planting them in the congregation so that I’d get the proper response at the proper time. But I didn’t plant them. They were just there. Sandy didn’t even like me very much, but she understood that she had a role to play in the sharing of the good news. So that’s very important for us.

Some churches are just funereal. They are moribund. Everybody acts dead. Nothing comes back. And so we’re grateful that you at Kenilworth Union are demonstrative and engaged and show us that you’re absorbing our sacred pronouncements. That’s very important to us.

Somebody gave me a great compliment the other day. She said, “When I livestream divine worship at Kenilworth Union, it doesn’t seem like you’re preaching to an empty house. It seems as if the whole congregation is there.”

And I so appreciated hearing that, because she was right. You are all here. Before we lead divine worship at Kenilworth Union, even virtually, Jo and Katie and I conjure you up in our imaginations. We see your faces, specific individual faces, and in the right pew, where you belong, every Sunday. We hear your laughter. We feel your tears. We notice your open, attentive faces, and your engagement with the message that we’re trying to get across.

And we’re so grateful for that because even under the best of circumstances, it sometimes seems as if preaching a sermon is a futile enterprise. You just never know if you’re getting through or not.

And maybe you’ve heard me say this before, that preaching a sermon is like dropping a rose petal in the Grand Canyon and waiting for an echo. That’s always true, even without quarantine, even when we’re all in this room together. But it’s especially true now, that preaching a sermon is like dropping a rose petal into the Grand Canyon and waiting for an echo.

And so all that by way of telling you that we miss you like crazy and we are eager for glad reunion, maybe no time soon, only when it’s safe, it might be a while yet, and until then, stay well, be safe, and enjoy this unprecedented time of togetherness with the people that you love most in all the world. May God bless you.