You must face it. It is inevitable. Sooner or later, you are going to preach a poor sermon, and you should prepare now. What are you going to do on this dreaded day?
As someone who has delivered many a disappointing discourse, I aim to encourage you in your discouragement. Some of my readers are unfamiliar with the sorrow of preaching a poor sermon, calling for a brief account of the experience. The following brief account will lead to a handful of helps for handling the after-effects of piacular preaching.
The Making of a Mess
You prayed, planned, prepared and prayed more. The days leading up to this Sunday were no different than those prior to any other Sunday. Still, almost everything is about to go wrong. You approach the pulpit under the shining words of the invocation prayer. Although you rehearsed your introduction time and time again, in the moment of truth the trouble begins. You fumble for the first words. The ums follow, and down the hill you go. Winsome words are slow to surface. Explantions evade. Illustrations dissolve. Applications miss their marks.
Mayday. Mayday. Oil pressure is dropping. Engine one is out. Cabin lights are blinking.There goes engine two. We’re losing altitude. Can’t control. Please advise. You’re in a tailspin; and with every escape maneuver, the tail spins faster. You know it. They know it. You’re plummeting to the ground, where a blazing inferno of undershot anecdotes and overshot analogies awaits you upon impact. The silence is deafening. A once sacred pulpit—designed for the announcement of winsome wisdom—is scattered, shattered into a million shards of splintered homily. There you are, standing in a pool of your own regret, desperately struggling to recover by use of an extra-humble, doubly practical prayer of invitation.
You wish to leave, but you cannot. Handshaking awaits…
“Very interesting sermon, Pastor.”
“Thank you, Pastor.”
“Good day, Pastor.”
The nauseating aroma of feigned enjoyment that really is pity. On the ride home, your wife is halfway honest, which is doubly painful. Noooo. It wasn’t baaaad. It wasn’t that bad. No, I-mean-it-wasn’t-bad. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t BAD. It was bumpy. You know what I mean. Bumpy.
Of course, the trouble does not end there. In a few days, you will knock on the door of a small group meeting, attended mostly by those who shook your hand following your interesting sermon. If you wisely organized your church’s small group format around sermon-based discussion questions, you will inherit the joy of reliving your Sunday squalor yet again. Once this is done, you will have another few days to gaze upon Sunday’s sequel, hanging just above the horizon. Isn’t preaching fun?!
As you know, this account is exaggerated for effect. Nevertheless, it is true. For the conscientious pastor—especially young pastors—preaching a poor sermon is a peak disappointment in ministry. Less informed critics may rebut, “Put your big-preacher pants on and get over it.” These critics do not understand the pernicious human heart or the high privilege of preaching. For the conscientious pastor, preaching a poor sermon is not equivalent to eating a bland meal. One may eat three a day, often without thinking much about it. Preaching a poor sermon is aking to preparing a bland meal when it is your life’s ambition to lay a royal spread, wholesome and delicious. In this respect, a dull sermon is a ministerial malpractice and not something soon forgotten.
Making the Most of Your Mess
As with all failures in the church, there are godly and ungodly ways to interact with failures of preaching. Here are five insights that may be part of a godly response to a bad sermon. May we not waste the poorest of our sermons, but rather enjoy the Lord’s working them for good to us who love Him and are called accord to His purposes.
1. Console yourself with gospel grace, not excuses.
If you are like the rest of us, you are a consummate justifier. Excuse making comes as second nature. You may find this most true immediately after preaching poorly: My preparations were interrupted. I didn’t expect that last song to end so soon. An unexpected counseling need distracted me just before the service. I didn’t sleep well last night. These obstacles might make for good excuses, but they are not fit for consolation. In this life, there is only one consolation—whether for the grieving widower, the anxious mother, the despairing addict or the discouraged preacher: the comforting gospel of grace. Do not set your mind on the reasons you crashed to the ground, but on the reasons your name is written in heaven. The Person and work of Jesus Christ—crucified, buried, risen, at work and coming again—is the only true consolation for pulpit grief and must be our diligent meditation after a disappointing discourse. When you are tempted to revisit your Sunday faults, you may freely return to the gospel as a sure comfort and consolation.
2. Rest in the trustworthiness of truth.
A further consolation is gospel truth. If you are committed to expositional preaching, you will enjoy an added advantage on this point. An exegetical/expositional approach to preaching naturally should bring the truth of Scripture to the surface. If you preach expositional sermons—extracting your content from the text—you may rest in the certainty that God is at work in Christ through the Spirit to bear fruit from the truth which you preached (out of the text). You preached a golden truth with a bronze tongue; rejoice that the truth is yet golden and will accomplish its heavenly purposes. Even if you are not strong in exposition, you may hope in truth. Find those truths, poorly presented as they were, and recall the truths of Scripture exist in the hands of a Sovereign King who does whatever He pleases. We know He pleases to accomplish His perfect plans through the foolishness of the message preached.
3. Alter not your preaching methods (at least not at first).
In addition to these, another caution is against the temptation to alter your preaching methods immediately after grounding out. Don’t let one or a few poor sermons lead you to contemplate a change of study technique, a reorganization of outline format or an altered style of delivery. If you alter your methods every time a sermon or an aspect of a sermon goes poorly, you will become methodologically schizophrenic. However, on a practical note, one small method adjustment that can yield great results without derailing your routine is to memorize the introduction. Of course, if you find yourself failing week after week after week, it may be time to re-evaluate your methods. At first, though, stick to your routine, get off to a good start, and keep moving.
4. Resist the urge to gossip about yourself.
Misery loves company. Why when we fail at tasks, do we think the best resolution is to talk about how magnificently we failed? Wow. Terrible sermon today, huh? I think that was the worst sermon I’ve ever preached. Perhaps we want others to know we are aware of our shortcoming, as though that would soften the pain. Do we think by overemphasizing the failure that maybe others will assume it was a rare malfunction. Gossiping about yourself will not accomplish this goal, and it is annoying to others when you brag (with that surprised look on your face) about how poorly you preached. Just as the sermons you esteem highest were likely not as stellar as you think, the sermons you most deplore likely were not as dreadful.
5. Guard against the temptation to prepare a redemptive sermon.
This is perhaps the most difficult temptation to resist after preaching poorly. Perceiving a drop in your approval rating almost certainly will provoke you to jealousy, and jealousy often translates to ramped-up performance. On the heels of a disappointing sermon, you are likely aware of a driving internal pressure to rebound the next Sunday with a stellar improvement. Instead of preparing Sunday’s sermon for the pleasure of God and the good of His people, the ruling desire of your heart may shift to resuming your place of admiration. If gone unchecked, the temptation to do better may sabotage the Christ-centered preparation and execution of your next sermon. When you sense the desire to redeem yourself, you are facing an important decision. Will you place your identity and hope in the fleeting nature of homiletical righteousness or the enduring and imputed righteousness of Christ? I may seem to be giving this experience too much credit, but in reality this question of righteousness is faced by every pastor every week.
Have you preached a poor sermon lately? If not, you’re probably due, and here’s to making the most of your next mess.