What is a bad sermon and how do I recover from preaching one?
Pastor, you are a Christian first. If you did not carry out your calling effectively, rest in the finished work of Christ and in the knowledge that you are a child of God by faith alone.
Every Sunday, when I finish preaching and come back to my seat in the second row, my ten-year-old daughter gives me two thumbs up. She probably knows that I need the encouragement because of how often she has heard me get in the car and say, “That was terrible.”
Every pastor is prone to self-loathing and exaggeration about how poorly he preached on Sunday. Sometimes, we are telling the truth and the sermon really was that bad. Every pastor will preach a “bad” sermon from time to time.
The issue we must wrestle with is what we do after preaching a bad sermon. Do we stay up all night on Sunday night replaying it in our heads or do we do something a little more productive?
Before we talk about how we should respond after we have preached poorly, we first need to define what a “bad” sermon is.
What Constitutes a “Bad” Sermon?
For the average Christian, a “bad” sermon usually means one that was boring or that went ten minutes too long. However, those of us who preach God’s Word every week need to have a more developed understanding than that. We need to know the aim of a sermon so we can know when we have missed the mark.
For the purposes of this post, I need to lay my cards on the table. I believe in what has been called “expositional preaching.” The best short definition of this type of preaching I have seen is that the main point of the passage under consideration is the main point of the message. In other words, whether you are in a topical series or preaching through a book of the Bible, an expositional sermon seeks to open God’s Word and explain what it says rather than imposing a meaning upon the text.
With that in mind, there are six characteristics of a bad sermon.
1. You didn’t explain the passage well
If the point of the text is to be the point of the message, then it follows that our first task is to explain the passage of Scripture. You can’t explain what you don’t understand. My college preaching professor used to say “A mist in the pulpit is a fog in the pew. If you don’t grasp the text, the people aren’t likely to understand it either.
2. Your application was shallow
In expositional preaching, you don’t just explain what the passage means. You also press the truth of God’s Word into the hearts and lives of your listeners by making relevant and pointed application. Sometimes your sermons fall flat because your application missed the mark. Sometimes this happens because you didn’t think through your application or you applied the passage to internet debates rather than the people in the room.
3. You lacked passion
I hesitate to bring up the issue of passion in preaching because passion can be faked. It is not hard to manufacture excitement, but week-in and week-out, people will be able to tell when passion is genuine and when it is fake. If your heart has not resonated with the message you are preaching, it is going to be hard for people in the pew to care as well.
4. You didn’t try to make the sermon interesting
In a perfect world, you don’t have to work on an introduction to get people interested in the sermon, but we don’t live in a perfect world. We dwell in a world where people often go an entire week without thinking about anything related to the things of God. While you don’t want to resort to theatrics to get out the message of the Gospel, you do need to craft sermons that will pique people’s interest and make them want to hear a word from Scripture.
5. You didn’t preach the gospel
You don’t preach every sermon like it’s a tent revival, but every sermon must point to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Every passage of Scripture helps people understand the work of Christ, so every sermon must point to him as their only hope as well. Look back over yesterday’s sermon. Did you tell people about Jesus’ death and resurrection and call them to faith in him?
6. You preached too long
I know that in a perfect world you should be able to preach for two hours and people should hang on every word. However, we live in a world where people struggle to listen to one person talk for a long period of time and very few of us have the ability to be interesting for that long. It is possible — actually, it is probable — that your sermons are at least five minutes too long.
Now that we have seen what defines a bad sermon, here are five steps you need to take when you preach a bad sermon.
Trust the Spirit’s work
We never want to become the guys who use the Holy Spirit to excuse a lack of preparation or sloppiness in the pulpit. At the same time, we do need to remember that the Spirit uses even a kernel of truth to impact people’s heart with the gospel message. God’s Word does not return void, so if you preached the truth, even if the sermon fell flat in many ways, the Spirit will use that word in people’s hearts. Trust that he will work. Sometimes unexpected fruit comes from poor sermons.
Rest in the gospel
Praise God that we are justified by faith alone and not by good preaching. Pastor, you are a Christian first. If you did not carry out your calling effectively, rest in the finished work of Christ and in the knowledge that you are a child of God by faith alone. Don’t look at next week’s sermon as a chance to redeem yourself, but as an opportunity to proclaim the grace you basked in all week long.
Diagnose what went wrong
Look through the characteristics of a bad sermon and figure out if any of them apply to your most recent sermon. Think through your preparation and your delivery. Did you understand the passage? Did you apply it faithfully or superficially? Did you apply it to an internet debate or the people you preached to? Look at the current state of your walk with the Lord and try to remember what time you went to bed Saturday night. Is your walk with the Lord stagnant or vibrant? Was your delivery off on Sunday morning because you did not get enough sleep to be sharp on Sunday?
Determine how to address it
Considering what went wrong, how are you going to address the problem? If the problem was with your explanation of the passage, what are you going to do differently in preparation this week? Do you need to tweak the way you study? Should you spend some time discussing the passage with people in your church so that your more faithfully apply the passage? Think about how you are going to preach the gospel from the text this week.
If the issue is with your spiritual life, how are you going to spend more time with the Lord this week? What sins do you need to repent of and how do you need to grow this week? Whatever the issue, come up with a plan of action so that you approach the problem constructively rather than wallowing in self-pity.
Rest well next Saturday night
Sometimes we forget that we are whole people. If you do not sleep well on Saturday night, you will not feel well on Sunday morning. It will influence the way you preach. Your mind will not be as sharp and you will have a tired delivery. Cut out caffeine after 5:00 PM and determine that you are going to get in bed a little bit earlier than usual. Don’t start watching a movie at 9 p.m. and avoid the late-night football game. It will be worth it.
By God’s grace, pastor, you have a few days before you stand to preach again. Work hard at study and don’t get up until you understand the passage you are preaching. Think and pray about how to best apply the text to apply the passage to your hearer’s hearts and how to point them to Christ. Then, pray that God’s Spirit will take the words that come from your mouth and use them to change hearts for the Father’s glory.