“My chief objection (to the Christian faith and the church today) is that ninety-nine percent of sermons and Sunday School teachings are so agonizingly dull!”
The critic, Frank Shallard, was a preacher himself, so he knew whereof he spoke.
Except he wasn’t speaking for himself. Shallard is a fictional character in the 1927 novel “Elmer Gantry” and, I’m confident, was voicing the views of author Sinclair Lewis himself.
That line, the final sentence in chapter 28, must have elicited a million cheers and “amens” from across the landscape as readers “heard” the renegade preacher voicing their own gripe about the church.
Boring preaching and dull Bible lessons are no recent phenomenon.
However, knowing that tiresome, uninspiring preaching has always been around does not make it any easier to take or to deal with.
You know what the problem is in addressing boring sermons, don’t you? That one will be boring in doing it. I’ve already started, deleted, and restarted this piece for that very reason.
Google “boring sermons” and pull up a chair. The internet has plenty on the subject.
Here is my little contribution to the discussion. I’ll try not to bore.
Boredom in anything–whether preaching the revolutionary gospel of Jesus Christ, playing third base for the Yankees or Red Sox, or being married to the most beautiful woman in the world–is part of the human condition.
The human being is constitutionally unable to stay excited all the time. The adrenalin would burn up our nervous system and we would be dead in six months from sheer exhaustion and sleeplessness.
God has created us so that the human brain adapts to every situation. The preacher of the world-shaking gospel settles down into a routine he can live with, the third-baseman grows accustomed to the adulation of the crowds and the television lights and the overflowing bank account, and the fellow married to (insert name of your favorite starlet here) finds that one day is pretty much like the next.
That’s why preachers grow lazy, third-basemen drop the ball, and husbands of starlets stray.
But we’re talking about the preachers here.
Some of those internet essays devote themselves to diagnosing the problem of boring preaching. And, it will not surprise you to learn they’re pretty rough on the man of God. The preacher of dull sermons has become a captive of the culture, betrayed his calling, brought shame on his Lord, cares little for his flock, and is violating the basic teachings of the Scripture. All of that and more.
Maybe all of this is true. I can’t say. What I can say and know from having lived a considerable number of years doing this kind of work in the Lord’s vineyard is that all of us settle down. It’s natural to adjust to whatever situations life hands us.
We do grow accustomed. It’s a survival technique and it’s not all bad.
It’s just something we have to deal with in the ministry if we would continually turn out challenging sermons in fresh ways to inspire and challenge the Lord’s people.
So, here are my suggestions on how the minister can keep his sermons interesting and challenging. You’ll think of more and we invite you to leave them in the comments at the conclusion.
1) Keep yourself fresh, preacher.
The minister will have to make a conscious effort to break free from the rut the pastor’s office wants to impose on him, with its unending rounds of administrative meetings, hospital callings, funerals, weddings, committees and boards and staffs, a million office details, and sermon building.
This will require the preacher to take down his calendar and, working with his spouse and closest church leadership, do some advance planning. One month, for example, he might decide to take two days for a prayer retreat to a friend’s camphouse on a nearby creek. He takes along his Bible and a notebook and nothing else (no DVDs, no novels, nothing). Another time, he and his wife are going to the beach for a couple of days. At other times, he stays at home, his wife takes charge of the cell phone, and he listens to the CDs of a Ravi Zacharias conference he has carried in his car for the past six months.
In the summer of my 38th year and during the 5th year of the pastorate of the First Baptist Church of Columbus, Mississippi, I was granted a six weeks leave. Being Southern Baptist, I had been used to attending the usual round of annual meetings–state and national conventions, as well as the February evangelism conference, and various associational things–and was, frankly, getting bored with the speakers I was hearing. So, I took down “Christianity Today” magazine and read all the announcements of upcoming pastors schools and retreats from various seminaries, Bible schools, and ministry organizations.
That’s how I came to attend the Moody Bible Institute’s Pastors Conference in May of that year. Next, I spent four weeks on the campus of Western Kentucky University where the Worldwide Discipleship Association was holding an intensive training for their people by bringing in outstanding speakers. Carl F. H. Henry spent a week with us, as did Ray Stedham and Gary Colllins and a number of other outstanding leaders.
The preacher has to work at keeping himself fresh. Staleness is not an aberration in this life; it’s par for the course. It happens to everything from the bread in your kitchen to the relationship with your wife to the sermon you deliver on Sunday.
2) Keep working on improving your sermons.
From time to time, the pastor will want to browse the Christian bookstore on a seminary campus. In the textbook section, he will find what the next generation of preachers are studying. I can guarantee that some of it will be new and challenging to him.
I know a preacher who once a year would travel to a seminary for an intense two day one-on-one study with a professor. He would line up the teacher a year in advance and they would agree on the subject of their study (something within the professor’s field). Then, for several hours over two days, the men of God went head-to-head discussing texts, wrestling with the issues, and hammering out theology. (The church supported the pastor in this and set aside money in the budget for the pastor’s “continuing education.” He always gave the professor-tutor a nice check. As a residual, that pastor had made a new friend for life.)
When the pastor returned home, he preached a series of messages from that particular book of the Bible or on the theme the two had studied. To no one’s surprise, the sermons were always well thought out and wonderfully presented.
Few of us in the ministry should settle down in our preaching as though we have arrived. We can all improve.
3) Keep a constant flow of ideas and inspiration coming your way.
Keep reading–the daily newspaper (and I don’t just mean online! You’re missing so much.), inspirational books, volumes of sermons, theology. But read outside your field, too.
Once a month pastors should visit the periodicals section of their public library. In ours, there must be two hundred monthly magazines lining the shelves. Most of these I have absolutely no interest in at all. But scanning the covers, I will choose a half-dozen that appear interesting. I end up reading on subjects I would never ever have thought of. When some of this shows up as sermon illustrations, it’s as surprising to my people as it had been to me.
4) Get feedback.
A good friend tells me he asks the ministerial staff for their feedback about his sermons in their weekly sessions. I laughed, “And you really think they tell you what they think?” He believes they do.
Sometime along about that fifth anniversary mentioned above, I asked the deacons for an evaluation of my ministry. (This suicidal tendency soon passed and I never did this again!) With a thoroughness that surprised us all, they worked up a 5-page questionnaire and visited in the homes of every seventh church member. The result was a complete analysis of how my ministry was being perceived by some two hundred members of our congregation. (The result was far better than I would have anticipated, incidentally, so the experience was not bad in the least.)
In my last church, in the letters we mailed to first-time visitors, we included a self-mailing postcard on which we asked 3 questions: What was the first thing you noticed about our church, what impressed you most, and what impressed you least. (You will recognize this from Rick Warren’s “Purpose Driven Church.”)
To my surprise, many of the visitors remarked on my sermons. Most were complimentary, but once in a while, I was skewered for the sermon’s length or content or theology or lack thereof.
The feedback was always helpful, whether I agreed with it or not.
My hunch is the first feedback most pastors get from the congregation about their preaching is when they are terminated and hear cutting remarks concerning their inabilities from the pulpit.
5) Stay in the Word.
If one looked at the Holy Scriptures only as a sermon resource book–and it’s far, far more than this–he would still find its offerings to be practically unlimited.
The minister will want to discipline himself to spend early morning time every day reading God’s Word without a thought to preaching it, but just for his own spiritual edification. His soul needs nourishing and this is how it is fed. “I have esteemed the words of thy mouth more than my necessary food” (Job 23:12).
However, let’s be realistic here.
In his devotional reading of the Word, every believer–preachers are in this category, too–will come across fascinating insights that challenge his mind and soul. So, the minister keeps a notepad handy and jots these down. Once the Holy Spirit begins connecting these insights with something the preacher has read or discovered in his own life, new sermons begin to take form. And, old sermons take on new life, too.
The promise of Matthew 13:52 holds for preachers as well as the rest of humanity. “Every teacher of the law who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.”
The old treasures of the Christian faith are still there in the Word, just waiting to be taken out, dusted off, and re-introduced to the people of God. But–and this is the exciting part–God has new things to show us, if we will come into the storehouse of His Word and pay attention.
6) Stay on your knees.
“Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up” (Luke 18:1).
Those are the two alternatives: pray or quit. “Always to pray” is the imperative of prayer. Quitting is the alternative to prayer.
It’s no breaking news to admit what we all know: some of us quit the ministry years before we leave the pulpit. We quit when we stop praying, no longer sit at the feet of the Master with his open Word in front ofus, and cease expecting him to give us the message his people need to hear next Sunday.
The pastor’s prayer life should always begin with a focus on the Lord Himself and then on his relationship with the Lord. Then and only then will he begin to pray about the sermon.
I suggest that the man of God pray for the sermon in all its facets: that God will lead him to the subject, show him pertinent scriptures, nudge him concerning the illustrations all around throughout the day, guide him in the word study and the actual construction, and bless in the assimilation of the Word in his own heart and soul. He will pray for the delivery of the sermon and pray during the rehearsing of the preaching.
On Saturday night, he will hand it all off to the Lord and quit obsessing over the sermon. But he will rise early on Sunday morning and head to the church hours before anyone else. There he will go over the sermon once or twice more, praying over each aspect, and he will pray for the people who will be gathering to worship. Then, when they begin arriving, he will get out of the office and greet them. He will listen and comfort and counsel and pray and hug. He will laugh and meet new friends and learn names. And when he stands to preach, he will do so confidently, knowing that the Lord has spoken to him during the week.
He might even find himself praying as Jesus did before raising Lazarus, “Father, I thank you that you heard me when I prayed” (John 11:41).
7) Get into the homes of your people and get to know them.
George W. Truett used to say the pastor’s diagnostic ministry–his weekday visitation in homes–is what enables him to stand in the pulpit on Sunday and hand out prescriptions.
The pastor who preaches boring sermons is failing to connect with his people concerning the matters they deal with every day. The best remedy for that is to go see them, talk with them, listen to them, get to know them. And, must we say, that this is not about golfing or going fishing with a couple of your buddies. No one is against that, but that should be for relaxation and only rarely turns out to be ministry.
As a seminary student, I used to hear classmates return from their weekend pastorates telling how their churches were so small, they visited every member of their church EVERY weekend. (One wonders how often they called on their members later when the congregations they served numbered in the many hundreds.)
8) Befriend non-Christians and listen to them.
Nothing will shake a preacher out of his lethargy like his neighbor standing on the front lawn and cursing him out for the way his trees shed on his driveway. Or, learning that a homosexual man he knows has just been fired from his job as a car salesman when the boss learned about him. Or listening to a family member taunt him for his simple-minded faith. (I’ve done all three.)
But the pastor can do better than this by seeking out unchurched people and outright unbelievers in his city in order to hear from them. The simplest way is to ask the Lord to open your eyes. They’re all around.
In my city, Greg Hand pastors a church one block off Bourbon Street. He sees more unbelievers in a day than most pastors encounter in a year. If I were a pastor, Greg would be one of my resources. I would ask to accompany him one day as he makes his rounds among the shops and restaurants, the dives and joints, the streets and the sidewalks and alleys of the French Quarter. And I would listen.
Pastors tend to live in an artificial world populated by people who love them and believe they speak for God. It can be a heady experience and lead to a multitude of abuses unless they balance it with voices from those who do not think they hung the moon and will say so in a New York minute.
9) Listen to at least one sermon from some other preacher every week.
In the old days, the pastor subscribed to tapes from well-known preachers. These days, he can go online to thousands of churches and with a few clicks of the mouse, hear every sermon their preachers have delivered for years. It’s a wonderful age with tremendous privileges, and we do well to take advantage of the opportunity it presents.
I particularly recommend that pastors listen to sermons from ministers they do not know and may not agree with doctrinally. They will get a new perspective and might learn something. And, even if they are bored out of their heads by what that preacher does or does not do, even that will be instructive for him.
Need we say that we are not talking about preaching that pastor’s sermons? Plagiarism has no place in the Lord’s work or anywhere else. A pastor will often hear a great illustration or insight from another man’s sermon, but he must look to the Lord for the messages God will have him preach. “I am against the prophets who steal words from one another” (Jeremiah 23:30).
10) Once in a while, do your sermon preparation in the food court at the mall.
Lest someone misunderstand, I am not suggesting you carry your study materials and notebooks and laptops into the food court. A simply notepad will be sufficient. By this point, you will have done a good bit of preparation on the sermon. What you are doing in the food court–a crowded one if possible–is holding your message up and trying it on for size with the people around you.
Sit quietly and observe the cluster of teenages at the next table. That young family with the too-tired baby. The old gentlemen who are waiting for their wives. The harried food-workers behind the counters. The bus boy clearing away the tables.
Ask yourself several questions.
What would these people think of the subject you are preaching? How would the points of that sermon connect with them? What do the teens and young families and retirees need to hear from God on this subject? How will the illustrations you have planned go over?
James Taylor, our preaching professor when I came through seminary a long time ago, used to say the worst preaching type was the kind we did most of. “You need to change it up occasionally,” he said. “Your people need variety. They will appreciate your being fresh in your approach.”
No one is suggesting–no one here, at any rate–that the preacher cater to the entertainment cravings of today’s generation.
We are not encouraging pastors to put on shows or bring in celebrities or relegate preaching to a minor aspect of the worship service in order to keep the short-attention span of the audience.
A certain number of people in every congregation will be bored by the sermon for the simple reason that they are not interested in spiritual matters. “The natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; neither can he understand them, for they are spiritually appraised” (I Corinthians 2:14).
We are talking about keeping the preaching of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ fresh and true and relevant and powerful.
We’re talking about not getting in the way of the Holy Spirit.