When Bad Sermons Happen to Good Preachers
As long as there are sermons, there will be bad sermons. And I hate preaching a bad sermon.
I hate it because preaching is such a vulnerable activity. If I lead a meeting poorly or have a bad counseling session, it's known only by a limited number of people. A bad sermon is like a car wreck—everyone slows down to see what happened. You don't want to seem callous, but it's irresistible.
I hate it because there's no one and no thing to blame. If a tennis player hits a bad shot, he always looks at his racquet, as if it's the racquet's fault, as if the string tension had suddenly and mysteriously changed. If I preach a bad sermon, what am I going to look at—the Bible?
I hate it because at our church we usually do four services on a weekend, and after the first one is over, I know I have to go through it three more times, bad sermon or not.
I hate it because of what's at stake. When preaching is done right, it can change lives. When it's done badly, my failure goes beyond the merely human. I know, I know—pastors are fond of trotting out "the-sermon-I-thought-was-the-worst-is-the-one-someone-told-me-changed-their-life" stories. That sometimes happens. Shaking a frozen laptop to get it unstuck sometimes happens too, but I wouldn't recommend it as a general strategy. As a rule, bad sermons tend to help people less than good sermons.
And yet they keep coming.
I have been preaching for 30 years now. I pray for guidance, I read about preaching and listen to good preachers, and I try to improve, but I have yet to find the formula that will guarantee effectiveness every time out. I still find myself preaching sermons now and then that are far too abstract, or where I try to force humor, or where I'm just nagging, or where it's not clear what I'm expecting people to understand or to feel or to do. I have moments when an idea that seemed so powerful as I was preparing it fails to connect with real-life people at all.
This doesn't just happen to me. It happens to the best preachers I know, the ones I couldn't preach like in a million years.
Bad sermons don't stop coming. But I think about them differently now than I did when I first started preaching. There are a few good things that can come when bad sermons happen.
First, they keep preachers humble. It's a strange way to make a living—standing up and claiming, "Thus sayeth the Lord." After I give what I perceive to be a few good sermons in a row, I can begin to believe that I have this preaching thing figured out.
And then a homiletical belly flop reminds me of what I should always remember: "Not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord." This is not the sort of craft than is meant to be mastered and manufactured.
If my words are to be offered at all, they are to be offered in a deep sense of dependence. And of course, if I have any sanity at all, that will begin to extend to the rest of the words that I speak; because in a real sense we are all proclaiming whatever gospel it is that we really believe all the time.
John Ortberg is editor at large of Leadership Journal and pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in California.