Today my company launched a website called Vital Sermons.
It’s like a spiritual version of TED Talks — a curated site where religious leaders of all kinds post exceptional, topical sermons for the consumption of people of all kinds, who seek inspiration beyond their local place of worship.
My friends will tell you, I’m an unlikely builder of this website. My mother was a fierce atheist who once fired a cleaning woman for singing religious songs around my sister and me when we were little. I didn’t grow up to be an atheist myself, but I’ve spent my life as a shrugging agnostic, content to shamble along the streets of my Chicago life in lieu of divine evidence, my soul sufficiently sated by the love of people, alive and, like my mother, dead.
Some of the people in my life have been believers. (Even my mother found spiritual belief later in life.) I often sensed their spirituality was part of what made these people admirable and beautiful. So I never adopted or appreciated any hostility toward religion. And atheism always seemed to me a faith of its own — and an unfulfilling one at that.
Preachers, meanwhile, were talking — and asking people to think every week — about the large things in life, as opposed to the chitchat about iPhones and food and sports statistics that everyone else seems to fritter their lives away on. When my very young daughter asked me what a church was, I heard myself explaining that they were places where people talked about their feelings. When she got a little older and would tell me she was bored, I would suggest that she might pass the time contemplating her own mortality. It was offered jokingly but meant seriously.
Meanwhile, I made my writing career in and around communication — and increasingly, over the years, around oral communication. That ancient and courageous act of one person standing before a number of her or his fellow human beings, and speaking. And that civilized act of the people, sitting quietly together, and listening. My first hero in this vein was the oral historian Studs Terkel, who I got to know in Chicago. He once told of interviewing a woman in a housing project about her life. “The mother of four little kids, skinny, pretty, bad teeth — meaning no dental care — and the kids are jumping around, ’cause they want to hear their mamma’s voice played back,” Terkel recalled. “And so I play it back, and she listens to what she said on the tape and she says, ‘Oh my God,’ she says. ‘I never knew I felt that way before.’”
Eventually I became editor of Vital Speeches of the Day magazine, which has published the most important speeches in the world since1934. And when I later became its publisher too, I wanted to record more than formal addresses and the dignitaries who delivered them. I wanted to celebrate other, more common areas of oral communication. Sermons, as closely related as they are to speeches and as commonly as they are delivered and in such a variety of forms, seemed the right place to start.
And so today Vital Sermons is born.
Where Studs Terkel and oral historians deliver the wisdom of ordinary people to unfathomed audiences, we dream of delivering audiences weekly into places of worship — churches, temples, mosques — whose doors they never otherwise would have found, let alone opened. Unearthing a broadly compelling sermon every week will be difficult, as one pastor suggested unsubtly. “You’re going to have to go through a lot of crap,” she said. And I’m sure we’ll make errors of judgment — as I did when I told a Catholic priest that posting his homilies on Vital Sermons would make them “immortal.” Oh, did he laugh at that.
Luckily, I’m not the pastor here at Vital Sermons; I’m more like the kindly maintenance man. Our staff includes a working pastor, and will lean heavily on our council of advisors — a group of homiletics scholars and prominent preachers of all religions who will help steer us toward the best sermons for sharing with our visitors. And soon, we hope, great sermons will bubble up from within our site, whose second purpose (and chief funding source) is as an attractive and busy platform for church leaders to post and distribute their sermons every week.
Meanwhile I’m steeping myself in preaching tradition, reading books like Rev. Martyn Lloyd Jones’ Preaching and Preachers, about which I wrote the essay, Provocations from Pulpits Past: Dead Preachers Challenge Living Ones.
But I also hope that my distance from homiletical tradition will also help us to present a broad variety of sermons, and that going largely on my long experience in judging secular oral communication will help me identify truth that transcends theology. My intellect and my goosebumps have been long acquainted with one another.
And my own beliefs? I boiled them down for the Vital Sermons staff: “We believe that all human beings have spirits beyond their bodies, feelings beyond their thoughts and life beyond their lives. We think people should feed, trust and heed their deepest selves. Our long orientation in oral communication has shown us that by listening to meaningful talks (like sermons, eulogies and other speeches on topics of humanity) in the company of fellow travelers, people come to understand their selves more clearly. We believe that when people share personal spiritual experiences in common, it contributes to the cohesion of a community and a society. Finding and creating a place for such sharing is the highest aim of Vital Sermons.”
Will we achieve it?
Ultimately, the sermons will tell.
If you’re interested in this project, please give us some time. The sermons we feature will either get better over the next weeks, months and years, or they will not. But giving good preachers a higher pulpit, and granting seekers a vast variety of spoken spiritual experience — this seems to me like a good mission. And the speechwriter, journalist, television host and ordained Baptist minister Bill Moyers agrees.
“I am a long-time admirer of Vital Speeches, which was founded the year of my birth,” Moyers wrote when I told him about Vital Sermons. “You’ve done admirable and important work over all this time. Despite (perhaps because of) the tsunamis of information that daily deluge us, and the rise of soundbytes and tweeting, your work remains as important as ever to many of us who still believe carefully crafted rhetoric to be essential to civilization and democracy. I am intrigued that you are now giving attention to sermons, which are so much a part of our heritage and so important today to so many people. I wish you well with the effort.”
And somewhere, maybe, my mother does, too.