During my first year of pastoring, we had a guest speaker come and preach for us. He had been the pastor for a couple in our church and had been in ministry for a number of years. Actually, he had a ton of experience. This wise pastor knew that I was brand new to ministry and that our congregation was in a new season. Thus, during his sermon, he informed the church that someday I was going to preach some bad sermons but that they needed to love me and allow for me to grow. After all, I was young and inexperienced! Of course, I probably thought something ridiculous like, “This guy has obviously not heard me teach!” I’m not sure I actually thought that, but it was probably something equally ridiculous. I didn’t really understand the mechanics of preaching (or of pastoring).
Unless you are Jesus, you are going to preach a few sermons that are epic fails. If you don’t think so, have fun on planet Voltron. You, yourself, and I are going to do just fine. But the rest of us need to admit that it’s not only possible, but it’s probable. That wise pastor knew what he was talking about because he himself had preached some bad sermons in his life. Anyone who serves as a pastor in the true sense of the word is going to have it happen from time to time. Trying to juggle time to properly study Scripture and prepare messages with the daily responsibilities of counseling and funerals and weddings can be difficult. Life happens, and our sermons sometimes suffer because of it.
So what should you do if you find that you are in the middle of preaching a sermon and you think to yourself, “This sermon sucks…”? How can you do damage control? Here are some thoughts:
Sometimes a sermon isn’t as bad as you might think. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought one of my sermons was horrible only to have quite a few people tell me they thought otherwise. You can’t always read the audience. Perhaps the Spirit is at work and it’s bringing about more reflection and introspection that loud “amen’s.” That’s okay. So relax. Stuff might be happening, even if you can’t see it.
Don’t beat a dead horse.
My first year and a half of pastoring, I was wrapping up seminary. This means that during the week I was reading graduate level books and writing papers on issues related to contextualization, dogmatics, and hermeneutics. I was reading on infralapsarianism and church history. I was learning big words… and boy did the church suffer for it! I’d walk into the pulpit with 12 pages of essentially an exegetical outline (I now average 2 page outlines). Half way through the sermons, it was sooooo obvious that the audience was drinking from a fire hose that you’d have to be blind not to observe heads nodding off and hear the snoring. Application? What application? Illustration? What illustration. Those were homiletic tools that only untrained theologians used!
Sadly, when it was overly obvious that people needed illustrations and applications, I would just continue to beat the dead horse. Listen, there comes a point where I think it’s okay just to think on your feet and come to the conclusion if you notice you have lost the audience. You want to know what’s worse than a twenty-five minute poor sermon? A forty-five minute poor sermon. Don’t beat a dead horse. I realize this takes a bit of creativity and spontaneous thinking, so forgive me if that’s a stretch.
Be honest w/ the congregation and provide a teaching opportunity.
This may not work in every congregation, so bear with me. If the congregation is full of Jesus-followers who understand what being a community of grace and learning is, you might want to consider being honest with the congregation. Why not state something like, “You know what, this sermon isn’t really working… let’s pray.” If you feel like things are going south quickly, why not stop and pray? Whoever made up the rule that you can only pray before and after the sermon? Is that even a rule, or is it just what everyone does because everyone does it? Aren’t we supposed to help people learn about walking in the Spirit and relying on the Spirit and seeking after the work of the Spirit? If so, perhaps our honesty will accomplish more than the sermons we preach. Perhaps people will actually see us model what this looks like. Perhaps our demonstration of stopping our own work in order to wait on the Spirit and to acknowledge our need for him will accomplish more.
Plus, the congregation needs to know that pastors aren’t perfect. There’s nothing like a poor sermon to remind them of that! And sometimes it can actually help educate the congregation if they understand that you spent the week meeting with a family who lost a loved one because you were doing the funeral. Perhaps the congregation can learn from that and spend the rest of the “sermon time” praying for that family. There’s a lot that can happen if you are honest… and a lot that can happen actually teaches more than we may realize.
Learn from your mistakes.
When I started teaching on homiletics, I became more aware of the importance of taking good communication. A wise preacher will learn the importance of a “big idea” and will learn to incorporate humor, illustrations and the application properly. Preaching can be a powerful medium. Because of this, I believe it’s imperative that preachers learn from their mistakes. If a sermon doesn’t go over well, ask yourself why! Sure, it may be due to the audience rejecting the ideas communicated. That’s always possible (cf. Acts 7:54-60). But maybe it’s because the ideas were not clear or compelling. Perhaps there wasn’t a logical flow to the arguments being made. Maybe the illustrations you used weren’t personal enough and seemed confusing.
Learn from your mistakes. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I tend to fall on the more “humorous” side of things, but that can easily backfire when preaching. Learn when to use it and when to avoid it. You want to break down walls, not alienate your audience.
Or maybe you need to learn that putting together a sermon on Saturday night, or worse, on Sunday morning, is a big problem. Proper preparation is generally very important, so don’t skim out. If you find your sermons don’t connect well and seem to be poorly developed and delivered, maybe the problem is you aren’t developing them enough. Learn from your mistakes. Only a fool would continually repeat the same error.
What would you add? What things would you recommend that someone do when a sermon is going downhill fast?
Luke is a pastor-theologian living in northern California, serving as a co-lead pastor with his life, Dawn, at the Red Bluff Vineyard. Father of five amazing kids, when Luke isn’t hanging with his family, reading or writing theology, he moonlights as a fly fishing guide for Confluence Outfitters. He blogs regularly at LukeGeraty.com and regularly contributes to his YouTube channel.
I think these are great ideas. Probably key is a willingness to stop mid-sermon and ask the Lord, “What do I do now?” And if it still doesn’t come together after that, don’t be afraid to stop talking and move in a different direction with the service.
I think Teresa nails it. It takes a lot of courage to stop and admit that the sermon isn’t working. I teach a lot so I’m pretty good at reading the audience and even recovering gracefully – which is good in a classroom when you realize you’ve stumbled outside of your own expertise. But in a sermon, that is a more sacred task (in my thinking) and requires that you be attentive to what God wants to do. I’ve had my share of times where I’ve thrown out the sermon from the get go, hearing God wanting to go in a different direction. The courage part comes from the expectation of performance. I think this is an unfortunate part of our contemporary evangelical culture. But when we humble ourselves before God we give God the opportunity to lift us up – or better yet accomplish what God actually wants to in that moment.