A lady recently approached me at church on Sunday and said sympathetically, “I thought last week’s sermon was really good.” She was trying to comfort me about the previous week’s message. Apparently someone on my staff had told her how unhappy I had been with it and for days she had waited to assuage my doubts and comfort my disappointment. “I heard you thought you were terrible last week and I wanted you to know that God really used it in my life. In fact, I have been meditating on it and studying my notes all week. It was truly a significant spiritual marker for me, exactly what I needed to hear and to learn.”

Indeed, she had heard correctly. Part of Monday staff meeting is the “homiletical postmortem” in which my staff and I talk about what was right and what went wrong in the previous day’s sermon. To be sure, I am far more critical of my labors than anyone else, but my fellow pastors also help me answer why it did or did not work. The sermon that this dear lady referred to in her kind endeavor to console her pastor was, in my expert opinion, a dud, and I had shared that with my staff. Their halfhearted and muted reassurance was not convincing, and with good reason.

Every preacher with at least three weeks of experience knows that feeling, as if swimming upstream in a river of Jello. The yawning chasm between intention and execution threatens to overwhelm and swallow the entire platform. How should a preacher handle the occasional failure even after extensive study and spiritual preparation?

Three responses

First, look around the preaching event. Other factors completely outside the preacher’s control can have a profound impact on the delivery of the sermon. A substantial and incessant distraction in the sanctuary, an anemic and sluggish selection of songs, or even some other component of the service that gets bungled can suck the energy out of the service and set the preacher up for failure.

Second, look within the sermon. Was the failure more about the handling of the text, the construction of the message, or the delivery? In my case, I rarely miss the big idea of the text. Even on bad days, I typically explain the sense of the passage well enough that my congregation understands the author’s meaning.

My struggle is usually with organization or delivery. I often don’t like my outline. When things go poorly I have to ask if the sermon itself was hard for me to get across, or did my delivery—specifically a lack of passion and energy—weaken and undermine what otherwise would have been a good sermon. Did I fail to illustrate and explain complex truths or did I spend so much time in illustration that it distracted? I try to be honest with myself but also ask others who know my preaching well and whose opinions I trust what they think the problem was.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, look beyond the sermon. I have often been delighted to find that the Holy Spirit still uses bad sermons when they are built on the eternal truth of God’s Word.

I want to work diligently to make every sermon I preach as good as possible in content and delivery, but I long ago realized that God, while honored by and worthy of my best effort, does not depend on my skill. The precious lady who encouraged me reminded me of that. It was a dud. I still believe that. To her, however, it was a dud God used to teach and shape her.

I can’t wait to preach again next week.