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When the Preaching is Bad

I have opined and written about this elsewhere: preaching is a truly tricky business. I liken it to having to produce a term paper every week, but instead of just one professor doing the evaluation, there are dozens, hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of individuals doing the marking. It can be a hit and miss simply because different measures are being used by those listening and watching. Moreover, even the best preachers have their off days. I remember once reading an account by a favourite of mine, the late Fred Craddock, a truly gifted teacher of preachers. He recounted delivering a sermon and how, for some reason it just wasn’t working. He went on to colourfully describe it as in some way writhing on the floor between he and the congregation! If Fred had his off days, why on earth would the rest of us assume we wouldn’t fall short on occasion? As noted previously, it’s a tricky business.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I delight in this part of my pastoral duties. The creation of the sermon is a labour of love, and like love often can be, it is a perplexing mixture of joy, discipline, and agony. Choosing a Bible reading, the critical work of determining what the original author might have been trying to communicate to their first audience, checking to see how others have interpreted the text over the years, and trying to appropriately let the reading speak into contemporary life is a complicated and fascinating task. For me, the actual act of preaching is really the icing on the cake. I usually begin the sermon on the Sunday night the week before, work through the Monday preparing a first draft (that I typically find unsatisfactory), and then spend the week editing the sermon over and over again. Rare is the homily I have not been revising at 7 A.M. the following Sunday morning.

Yet, despite my best efforts, sometimes it just doesn’t hit the mark. There can be all sorts of reasons for this. It could be the wrong reading for the congregation at a certain point in the common life, or the preacher’s interpretation of the text was not done well enough, or it might be due to sun spots, for all I know. It is complicated. What I do know is that sometimes a sermon just doesn’t seem to do what the preacher wanted it to do … or what the hearers were hoping it might do in them.

Of course, communicating is a two-way task, and those listening always have a role in the process. So, having delivered my share of unsatisfactory or otherwise awkward sermons over the years, I have assembled a number of suggestions for disappointed congregants to use to try and salvage something from a less-than-memorable sermon.

First, if you find the sermon upsetting in some way, try to determine just what is causing your discomfort. Is it merely bad or ineffective preaching? Is the preacher offering a teaching that is in some way counter to, or a distortion of the good news of Jesus Christ? Then again, might it possibly be that you are being challenged in some way? Knowing who one is being made uncomfortable by is important to establish.

Second suggestion: if the preacher is having a truly bad day and things are not going well, then how would you choose to interpret the Bible reading it’s based upon? In just a few sentences, how would you offer this text to a friend as good news? By the way, if there’s no way to connect the reading to the sermon, your preacher may be needing some holiday time. Your preacher’s opinions may be interesting, but that’s not really what makes a sermon.

Third (and this preacher is relieved to say this), the Almighty is wonderfully creative in finding ways to communicate. God can indeed speak through the sermon, but also well beyond the sermon. Prayers, sacraments, song, silence, the fellowship that occurs in gathering together—God speaks in far more ways than we are aware. Perhaps a forgettable sermon is God’s way of directing your attention to another element of worship.

Fourth, though rare in my experience, there are some preachers that we just don’t connect with, at least some of the time. In that case, one of the most important things to we can do first is make sure that we make a real effort to become more disciplined in regular prayer and Bible reading. Reading the Biblical story and hearing the scriptures explained are important elements of our growth as disciples. Depending on Sunday mornings alone is not enough.

Fifth, always pray for your preacher. Even the best of us (perhaps especially the best of us) need the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to truly engage in this particular part of our life together. It is amazing to watch what God can do when you pray for a preacher. Even us bad ones.