How to Survive the Sermon When Your Pastor Goes Off-Script
Image: Raphael / Wikimedia Commons

One of the many joys of getting involved in the life of a local church is the sheer predictability of it all. In a world where Beyoncé could drop an album at any moment and J.K. Rowling continues to add addendum after addendum to the Potterverse, Sunday mornings are routine and unsurprising in the most refreshing way: you sit, stand, cross yourself, or recite the Lord’s Prayer almost instinctually—and, after hearing hundreds of sermons, you become intimately familiar with your pastor’s unique preaching, making it easy to follow his or her outline and take diligent notes.

Except, of course, when it all goes awry.

It can happen to anyone, at any time: you’re sitting in the pew, scribbling spiritual takeaways into your original-ruled Field Notes memo book, when you slowly start to realize something is amiss. Was the organ out of tune? Doubtful. Is the minister’s blazer two sizes too big? Of course, but it always is, so that’s not the problem either.

In the pulpit, the pastor stares at his notes for an awkward 15 seconds before pushing them to the side, and the horror of what’s about to happen dawns on you: he’s calling a mid-sermon audible, veering from the coherent, structured outline to try his hand at homiletical improv. Maybe the Holy Spirit is teaching him what he ought to say in that very hour, or maybe he just realized that this three-point sermon works better as a rambling polemic. Either way, brace yourself. Oratorical chaos is nigh. But follow these simple steps, and you just might survive to worship another day.

1. Confirm the situation.

The Almighty created peripheral vision and saw that it was good for a reason. Use it to steal a glance at your neighbor’s notes and confirm that this is really happening, and that you didn’t just miss what the “A” in the “PRAY” acronym stands for while you were strategizing how to beat the after-church lunch rush to Chili’s. If your fellow churchgoer seems as lost as you, take heart—burdens like these are meant to be borne together.

2. Remain calm.

Your congregation needs a fearless leader who can maintain composure and shepherd them through this time of uncertainty. Rather than doing something rash yet well intended—you know, like cutting off the sound guy’s right ear or something—use this as an opportunity to grow in Paul’s lesser-known, decidedly more gracious fruit of the Spirit: flexibility. (Don’t worry, there’s no salvation-threatening hot yoga involved.)

3. Get comfortable.

When pastors go rogue and toss their sermons out the (stained glass) windows, all bets are off; forget everything you think you know about how faithful reverends function. If your Sunday sermons usually run a standard 18-20 minutes, just go ahead and double it. If you’re used to the 45-minute variety, then buckle up—you’re in for a filibuster that would put Jefferson Smith to shame. Consider rationing any mints or gum you may have on your person, and pray the Lord hears your groaning and, in his mercy, remembers his covenant with his people. Or, if you’re up for approaching the throne of grace with confidence, a genuine New Testament Feeding of the Five Thousand redux might temper the frustration of parishioners who made lunch plans assuming it would be business as usual this week. (Farewell, sweet Chili’s; we barely knew thee.)

4. Be open-minded.

Things will, Lord willing, go back to normal next week, but don’t check out just yet. As tempting as it is to recede into your mental playground when it feels like a preacher has mistaken his sermon for a congressional filibuster, maybe—just maybe—the same God that taught Balaam’s donkey to talk has decided to speak through the person extemporizing behind the pulpit.

And hey—if not, there’re always sabbaticals.

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How to Survive the Sermon When Your Pastor Goes Off-Script