Back in my full-time preaching days, (I spent 20 years in full-time ministry), I remember one especially “oh, yeah, that is so true” moment that was so obvious I could not believe I had not seen it/realized it.
I was reading a book on preaching (homiletics: sorry, I don’t remember which particular book; I read many!), and the author said that all preachers only have 5 sermons. (He allowed for a range of from 4-7). His counsel was to make sure “your” five sermons were the right five sermons, and that you balanced them well.
It did not take me long to figure out my five sermons. And, so, I would try to rotate them effectively. Of course, they all sounded different: different stories and illustrations, different Bible texts. But, they were definitely emphasizing common themes that I repeated time and time and time again.
So, you ask, why? Why does a preacher have to repeat the same sermon over and over again? Because there are new people every Sunday who show up for a first time to hear that week’s sermon. They have to be “initiated”; they have to go through “new person” orientation… And because people are forgetful. Way too forgetful. There are so many demands on our time, our lives, that we have to be regularly reminded of core values, core challenges. We have to work hard at the serious stuff, and be ever vigilant guarding against the “slippage,” allowing periphery stuff to usurp the rightful place of the serious, central stuff.
This all came back to me as I read this Daily Beast interview: Alain de Botton on the Benefits of Religion Without God. Alain de Botton is the author of the new book Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion. Here’s a key excerpt from the interview:
In your book you write: “God may be dead, but the urgent issues which impelled us to make him up still stir and demand resolutions which do not go away when we have been nudged to perceive some scientific inaccuracies in the tale of the seven loaves and fishes.” What are those urgent issues?
I am not very interested in the doctrines of religions. What interests me is their organizational forms and, in particular, their capacity to make ideas powerful.
The secular world tends to trust that if we have good ideas, we will be reminded of them when it matters. Religions don’t agree. They are all about structure; they want to build calendars for us that will make sure we regularly encounter reminders of significant concepts. That is what rituals are: they are attempts to make vivid to us things we already know but are likely to have forgotten. Religions are also keen to see us as more than just rational minds, we are emotional and physical creatures, and therefore we need to be seduced via our bodies and our senses too. This was always the great genius of Catholicism. If you want to change someone’s ideas, don’t only concentrate on their ideas, concentrate on their whole selves.
This is a genuinely profound insight: “Their capacities to make ideas powerful… Religions are all about structure; they want to build calendars for us that will make sure we regularly encounter reminders of significant concepts. That is what rituals are…” And the parallel to the building and reinforcing an effective corporate culture challenge is obvious.
Ask any corporate culture expert, and he or she will tell you that it takes a long time to build a corporate culture. A long time! It requires reinforcement, constant conversations, constant reminders, constant, constant attention. And constant vigilance against being sidetracked, and/or allowing the wrong values or the wrong focus or the simply less-important to become too important. People simply don’t get it, or they quickly forget, or they don’t really trust that leadership is serious about it.
It takes “five sermons,” preached over and over and over and over again, to build and maintain an effective corporate culture.
This author seems like an unexpected source of corporate wisdom, but I think Alain de Botton is onto something. We do need “calendars for us that will make sure we regularly encounter reminders of significant concepts,” whether in our personal values world, or in our corporate life.
Because we are so quick to forget, and thus ignore, what is most important.