We don’t need to preach a perfect sermon for God to bless it. God is sometimes pleased to take our most pathetic sermons that we want to forget forever and to turn them into a means of salvation for some or for many. I’ve been stunned at how God has used sermons that died on me to give life to others.
If you’ve ever preached, you know what a sermon fail feels like. Sometimes, even before we preach it, we have the horrible sense, “This one is just not going to fly.” Other times, we’re a few minutes into the sermon and we think, “How can I dig a hole in the pulpit and get out of here?” Or maybe it’s halfway through and we get that horrible sinking feeling as our sermon dies in front of our eyes. Worst of all are the times we think we preached a home-run but afterwards we discover that everyone else thinks we struck out. Sermon fails are awful experiences that can linger with us for days, even weeks, as we mull over the disappointment and even the humiliation.
As someone who has preached my fair share of sermon fails over twenty-five years, I’d like to share with you how I try to turn these painful experiences into profitable ones.
Looking back: What went wrong?
It’s appropriate to have a post-mortem when a sermon dies on us. I start with questions about the sermon such as:
- Was it too complicated?
- Was it too long?
- Was it too heavy — too much theory and not enough application?
- Was it too boring?
- Was it too fast or too slow?
- Was it inaccurate — did it misrepresent the text?
- Was it illogical and confusing?
- Did I choose the wrong text/message?
I might ask my wife or an elder to help me answer these questions accurately.
Then I go on to ask questions about myself such as:
- Did I put enough hours and work into the sermon?
- Did I pray enough over the sermon?
- Did I depend on the Lord or was I depending on myself too much?
- Did I strike the right tone?
- Did I put enough energy into the preaching?
- Is there sin in my life that I need to repent of?
- Is my relationship with God in the right place?
Then I ask questions about the congregation such as:
- Is there a problem in the congregation that I am not aware of or I am not dealing with?
- Is the congregation preparing adequately and prayerfully for the preaching?
- Is there a disconnect between me and the congregation that I have to put right?
- Were there too many distractions and disruptions (crying babies/kids to bathrooms)?
We have a quarterly review of the preaching by our elders which considers questions such as these.
Looking forward: What can I learn?
After looking back with the post-mortem I will hopefully have discovered some lessons I have to learn. But I also go forward with these additional thoughts:
1. Sermon fails are inevitable. As long as I am a sinner with many flaws and faults I will preach sermons that bomb from time to time. I must accept that and live with that, and not get angry with myself or with God for the discomfort and sometimes the humiliation that I experience.
2. Sermon fails are profitable. They humble me and teach me to depend much more upon God than upon myself. They remind me that God is sovereign and that he alone gives the increase. They make me search my heart and life to find any unrepentant sin. They also teach the congregation that the best preacher is only human and needs much prayerful support.
3. Sermon fails produce better sermons. The painful memory makes us work harder at our sermons in the future — improving our exegesis, our structure, our application, our delivery, etc. We don’t want to go through that again any time soon and so we double our efforts.
4. Sermon fails can be blessed by God. We don’t need to preach a perfect sermon for God to bless it. God is sometimes pleased to take our most pathetic sermons that we want to forget forever and to turn them into a means of salvation for some or for many. I’ve been stunned at how God has used sermons that died on me to give life to others.
5. Sermon fails increase my sympathy. If I never preach an “F” now and again, I will be hyper-critical when listening to other preachers. Failing now and again increases my sympathy and prayers when other preachers are struggling.
That’s how I try to “fail forward.”
David Murray is Professor of Old Testament & Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. This article first appeared on his blog, Head Heart Hand, and is used with permission.