It is inevitable in a lifetime of preaching that we shall all make mistakes in our preaching. Sometimes these mistakes become embarrassingly more than we intended. I, too, have flubbed by saying something so ineptly stupid that there was neither a way to call it back nor somehow unsay or explain it. My own have been very gross, and I can hardly bear to think of them; so I will use only the pulpit bloopers of others to make my point.
The late Bruce McIvera of Dallas, Texas, confessed that in a Palm Sunday sermon he explained to the flock that when Jesus entered Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday, He had to get off His donkey and serve the people—only Bruce used the sacred, time-honored, King James word for donkey. Then he confessed he said to the congregation if we are going to serve others we, too, must get off our donkeys—and here he also used the time-honored, King James word for donkey—and begin to serve the people.
The volleys of laughter that issued from the congregation caused his face to redden and he felt that subsequent, overwhelming desire to be dead. While nothing survived the hour worthy of being called persuasion, one does in time decide that living is probably OK and that looking like an idiot out searching for his village does in a way help us remember our stupidity and be humble.
What is to be done after a pulpit blooper?
While it would be a good time for Jesus to come again and put things in perspective, so far that has not happened, and preachers have had to go on living. It’s not much fun, though. When you meet people on the street and they break into gales of laughter, you remember the awful moment you would wish to forget. After a decade or so, they actually do forget; and you live in that peaceful valley between your regained composure and your next blooper.
Here’s what you do, assuming the earth doesn’t open up and swallow you, which is what you wish would happen:
First, laugh along with them. Don’t start laughing too soon or they will think you planned to do it. Then you will lose your spiritual reputation. I had a preacher friend way back in seminary who in preaching on Lot, “who pitched his tent toward Sodom,” actually said “Lot pinched his…” Well, you get the picture. He confessed that as soon as he realized what he had said, he began laughing but too soon. He didn’t get fired for it, but it seemed to some he was less repentant than he should have been.
Second, if it is not too bad a blooper, you probably can bear down on your next pulpit point and get deadly earnest, and they will let it pass. Another friend of mine had a huge wedding on Sunday afternoon, followed by a big baptism service that evening. The marriage had quite consumed his attention for the day, and that night, when he appeared in the baptistery with his candidate, he threw up his hand and said, “Marriage is an ordinance, ordained by God…and so is baptism!” His mistake brought sniggering from the flock, but he assumed a whole bucket of dignity and quoted with force a great many Scripture verses—enough to make them all ashamed they were laughing at such a serious moment.
Third, some may not be listening hard enough to hear it at all. I heard a preacher make a historical boo-boo that no one seemed to catch. He was preaching about how bad it was to be lost, and he used for his illustration an event that had happened just that week. A confused whale lost his direction, left the channel and swam up the Thames into the heart of London. The preacher said, “Yes, brothers and sisters, it is awful to be lost. Think of that poor, lost whale that swam up the Thames into the heart of Paris.” Of course you can’t do that, but none of his members seemed the wiser for his mistake; so he got by with a bit of bad geography. Most of the time we are not that lucky.
Fourth—and I think this is most sensible—cover up any serious blooper the best way you can and finish the sermon early. At least this will allow your congregation to get to the cafeteria before the Methodists do, and the day will not be wholly lost.