I wish it was as difficult to ruin a sermon as it is to ruin, say, a tank. But, alas, it is not.
After a week of study, prayer, and wrestling, having a sermon ruined is truly not the desired result. But, it happens nonetheless.
This post is not concerned with things outside the pastor’s control: people having coughing fits that go on for several minutes, children (or adults) making repeated restroom visits, Sister Sue clipping her fingernails, or someone snoring. We are considering only things the pastor/preacher might do to ruin a perfectly good sermon.
Ignore the text.
The old preacher adage is, “He took a text, departed therefrom, and went everywhere preaching the gospel.” While we should always rejoice when the gospel is preached, it isn’t necessary to go everywhere to find it.
The temptation is the same in every age—falling back onto what we are comfortable preaching. That’s how a sermon from “to live is Christ and to die is gain” somehow morphs into a lecture on tithing. It’s how “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength” becomes “You ought not to be playing cards!”
Alistar Begg said:
There’s a way to preach the Bible unbiblically…You can use the Bible as the springboard for all kinds of ideas, can’t you? Look around in here and find something that fits your fancy and then launch a rocket off it. People say, ‘That was amazing, wasn’t it? Remarkable what he got out of that.’ Well of course it is because he put it in before he got it out.
Even in this day people attend church meetings because they want to know what the Bible actually says.
Preach. The. Text. There is power in the Word.
Ignore your context.
Every sermon isn’t directly transferable to every congregation. There is a difference between rural and urban, between a college town and a farming community, between gray hair and green hair.
A couple of years ago I was blessed to have a five month interim preaching opportunity. The church is located in an area with a high concentration of PhD holders, one of the highest in the nation. The composition of that congregation was far different than any I had ever taught. It was in the back of my mind every week as I prepared the sermon and every Sunday as I delivered it.
The same passage can be preached to different people, but illustrations, personal stories, and humor may need to be tailored to each congregation, else we run the risk of losing their attention.
Ignore the clock.
“The mind can retain no more than the rear-end can endure,” goes the old saying. This much is true.
Every time we preach to a congregation, we do so with a trust. Those listening trust that we have something to say. I hope they also trust that we will stop when we finish saying it. Too often, we keep going after God has stopped.
We live in a world with ever shortening attention spans. I recently saw a music video analyzed: it had 671 cuts and transitions in three minutes and 55 seconds. A British study in 2015 found smartphone users reach for their devices an average of 85 times each day. That means some of your listeners are fighting off the temptation to do so more than once while you are preaching. In television and movies the dialogue from the next scene often begins while the current scene is still on screen. All this to say, the attention span of people in technologically developed countries is short. Even advertisers realize it. Ignoring this reality is unwise.
When I’m preaching, I put my phone in airplane mode and access the stopwatch. As I’m arranging my Bible and notes on my stand, I hit “start.” My personal sweet-spot is 30-40 minutes, inclusive of invitation transition. The stopwatch keeps me aware of how much time is left.
I have found over the years if I respect people’s time week-by-week, they hang with me those weeks when I preach 45 minutes or longer. Better to leave them hungry for more than shifting in their seats having lost their appetite.
Ignore your listeners.
Have you ever sat under a speaker (whether preacher, teacher, or speech giver) who did not make eye contact with the audience members? I do not hold a gold medal in eye contact, but the effort must be made. Eye contact brings an element of authenticity to your preaching.
Years ago, my then-pastor told me he tried to make eye contact with every person in the room at least once during a sermon. This was in a church of 700 people. A little math reveals a 50-minute sermon (common for him) would require making eye-contact with 11.6 people each minute, or a different person every five seconds. This takes intentionality. And practice.
Pastors, we cannot hide behind a manuscript (whether analog or digital). We must overcome any aversion to looking at the people we are teaching. Sometimes I write at the top of my notes in big, block letters: LOOK AROUND. If I can’t make eye contact with every person, I try to at least look into each section or row, more than once if possible. Besides needing the non-verbal feedback, people tend to be more attentive: “He might look over here next!”
The message is too important to ruin.
Most pastors would agree the Sunday sermon is one of the most important times of the week, if not the most important. None of us want to sabotage our own efforts and certainly not impede anything God wants to do through them. Herman Melville may have overstated the point a bit in Moby Dick, but even so, the responsibility of preaching should give us great pause:
The pulpit is ever this earth’s foremost part; all the rest comes in its rear; the pulpit leads the world. From thence it is the storm of God’s quick wrath is first descried, and the bow must bear the earliest brunt. From thence it is the God of breezes fair or foul is first invoked for favorable winds. Yes, the world’s a ship on its passage out, and not a voyage complete; and the pulpit is its prow.
The featured image is a screen grab of actor Paul Dano from the movie There Will Be Blood. Dano played Eli Sunday who found numerous ways to ruin sermons.