How shall we respond to a ‘bad’ sermon?

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.
~ 2 Timothy 4:1-5

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On any given Sunday, there are millions of sermons preached around the world. The average church-goer will hear several thousand in their lifetime and only a few will stand out as memorable (maybe because it was life-changing or because it was a particularly convicting message). However, some sermons stand out because they aren’t received well. The question we are going to address is this: how shall we respond to a ‘bad’ sermon? What follows will be 3 questions to ask ourselves if we think we’ve just heard a ‘bad’ sermon, 4 ways of discerning what a ‘bad’ sermon even is, and 5 actions we can take to move forward. There are not the only ways, questions, and actions that could be stated but are just the ones that I will be pointing out in this post.

But first, let us define what a sermon is. This is difficult because I believe the modern concept of the ‘sermon’ is a cluster concept that encapsulates several different kinds of address. However, here we go:

Sermon: an address that seeks to herald the word of God by teaching, rebuking, encouraging, and/or persuading others.

This definition, successful or not, seeks to be broad enough to encapsulate different modes of preaching (e.g. story telling a narrative from the Bible in Uganda as compared to a 3-point sermon in New Zealand) and narrow enough to exclude other forms of address (e.g. just lecturing or just sharing a testimony, though these components could be incorporated into preaching). With specific reference to Christian preaching, a sermon is an address that finds its main content in the public proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as taught from the Christian Scriptures (i.e. the word).

It’s important to state that our personal response to poor preaching is to be filled with grace. Preaching is a huge task that is filled with weight and responsibility, and a sister or brother who has spent the hours preparing, writing, and then preaching can be feeling the burden of it all. Perhaps they were struggling to understand the passage? Perhaps they had a difficult week? This doesn’t excuse poor preaching but it does mean that our response should not seek to punish a sincere servant of Christ. We want to do all things for building up. And, consider this: any truth you hold, or discernment you have correctly made, about God’s word could only have been made by God’s grace by the Holy Spirit. So there is no place for arrogance when it comes to approaching a preacher who hasn’t been blessed in the same way you have because it is only because of God’s Spirit that you have any correct understanding at all. That being said, here are 3 questions to ask before we get ahead of ourselves.

3 questions to ask yourself before classifying a sermon as ‘bad’

  1. Did I misinterpret what the preacher was communicating? – It may be possible that you were not listening carefully to what the preacher was seeking to communicate, or perhaps you misunderstood a section or illustration of the sermon. Alternatively, you may think a sermon is ‘bad’ because what was taught doesn’t square with your own interpretation of some aspect of Christianity. A question to ask yourself is whether or not you are the one who has misinterpreted God’s word and are incorrect. One of the ways you can ask yourself this question is to speak directly to the preacher and clarify what has been said. If this isn’t possible, you can ask those around you whether they heard/saw the same thing. And asking this question can direct our attentions back to God’s word for ourselves to prayerfully consider what is written and whether or not our assumptions about what was heard or what was taught are incorrect.
  2. Am I setting myself above God’s word, or seeking to prayerfully sit under it? – A heart that sits before the teaching of God’s word with a critical attitude is one that may not believe that they need to hear God’s word themselves. When we read the word of God we don’t critique it – it critiques us. Granted, not every preacher is faithful to God’s word, but we must examine our hearts to ask whether or not we approach the sermon with a humble, and teachable, spirit. Failing to do this can be a vice of those who have received some theological training, especially if they are more familiar with the passage being taught or the doctrine being explained. But while knowledge puffs up, love builds up, and a greater knowledge should always make us wary of arrogance or becoming disenchanted with how beautiful and glorious it is to hear God’s word.
  3. Have I evaluated the preacher’s ‘performance’ simply based on worldly standards of excellency? – What may be seen as a ‘good speech’ or a ‘good lecture’ may not constitute a faithful and effective sermon. For instance, memorisation of a speech without the use of a manuscript is an impressive way to deliver a speech, but that doesn’t have to be a metric that we use to evaluate a sermon. A preacher can choose to use a manuscript or a preacher can choose not to; such a choice should rarely (if ever) dictate if we see a sermon as ‘bad’ or ‘good’. There is a place for effective and skilled rhetoric and delivery, especially when we understand that God can work through the communication of a preacher to effect change by His Spirit, but these should not be the only ways in which we evaluate a sermon. After all, God can work despite our lack of outward impressiveness. Even the Apostle Paul says that he would preach without eloquence or wise and persuasive words (1 Corinthians 2:1-5).

4 ways of discerning a ‘bad’ sermon

  1. A sermon is ‘bad’ if it distorts the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
    In Galatians 1:6-10, Paul reminds the Galatians that there is only one Gospel, and that no one has the right to distort this Gospel. If anyone – even an angel from heaven! – should preach a Gospel that is not what we see revealed in the Bible then they are misleading others and dishonouring God. Whenever we hear a sermon, we need to understand that the teaching we are hearing is primarily presented to those who have repented of their sins and placed their faith in Jesus Christ. Consequently, everything we learn should be in response to what we know of Jesus. If the Gospel message presented in a sermon is at odds with what we first received, then we are not being faithfully served by our preacher. If an unbelieving friend is hearing the sermon then they will be misled about who Jesus is and what He has done!
  2. A sermon is ‘bad’ if it doesn’t seek to communicate God’s word in a context-appropriate manner.
    This point is a broad one, but it has a simple basis: when we speak to others we are to do so with grace and truth or, in other words, we are to speak the truth in love. Consequently, we want to consider how it is that we can communicate the truth in a way that is sensitive to the people who are listening in terms of their background assumptions or language barriers, and also removes as many barriers as possible from their ability to hear the word of God. Please note that I am not saying that the preaching should not be offensive – the word of God is offensive because it confronts our expectations of reality and daily practices and reveals their wickedness. But we can seek to communicate in a context-appropriate manner that loves others and desires for them to hear the truth as clearly as possible. Here are some negative examples of this:
    – preaching in English to an audience who only speak Japanese
    – using Christian jargon without defining terms in a Sunday service (there may be unbelieving visitors!)
    – telling a joke about dying at a funeral service
    A preacher should seek to communicate in a context-appropriate manner, with sensitivity and an acute awareness of their listeners, but we must say that this is impossible to always achieve perfectly. A preacher may not know everyone who is there and may be unaware of how their words will be received. We must remember to be gracious and understanding with the monumental task of preaching to people before classifying a sermon as ‘bad’.
  3. A sermon is ‘bad’ if it points the listeners to the preacher instead of Jesus Christ.
    Preachers are to preach the word. Preachers herald God’s message to our listeners and point them to the glory of Christ – not ourselves. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:5, we preach Jesus Christ as Lord instead of ourselves. If preachers ever make reference to themselves, it should be as servants for Jesus’ sake. There is a place for illustrations, stories, and testimonies, but these should always be in service of pointing people to God. Preachers must also avoid self-promotion and seeking to ‘wow’ others with our knowledge and rhetoric.  If my listeners remember my illustrations and stories more vividly than God’s word, then I have failed as a preacher.
  4. A sermon is ‘bad’ if it places the accent on anything other than grace. 
    There is a reason why all the epistles of the New Testament begin and end with an expression of grace (and usually peace!): Christians are saved by grace, and all that we do is a response to this grace. Preaching can become nothing more than moralism or inspiration if it forgets this. God’s word teaches, rebukes, encourages, and corrects, and so teaching the whole counsel of God will mean that we are driven to action. But preachers are always to show their listeners how our actions are a response to what God has already done for us in Jesus Christ, and how any good thing that we have or do is only possible because of the grace of God in our lives. Ultimately, preachers must be faithful to the word of God that they are preaching from. But a faithful preacher will see any passage as either pointing, or stemming as a response, to Jesus. That is why I am confident that any part of God’s word can be preached with the accent – the biggest thrust and focus – on grace.

5 actions you can take to move forward after a ‘bad’ sermon

  • Remind yourself that God can work through a sermon or despite a sermon. He is sovereign and nothing can thwart His plans and purposes.
  • Pray for your fellow listeners and for the preacher, asking God to preserve or establish their faith and to bless them with an assurance of the truth from His word.
  • Correct the preacher if possible. There is a time and place for this to happen, so perhaps you can ask to speak with the preacher in private. Rarely, if ever, should you feel like it is not your place to do this. Even a child with one verse of Scripture is more authoritative than a theological graduate with none. Also seek to correct the understanding of those around you if possible. It may be important to point out the problems with the sermon to other leaders in the church.
  • Encourage those who have discerned the errors of the sermon that we have access to God’s word which is the source of ultimate truth, even if we as imperfect humans don’t understand it completely or perfectly. And, thank God, we have His Holy Spirit that can give understanding.
  • Praise God that you have been blessed to be able to receive the grace of having discerned the problems of the sermon, and that you could pray, correct, and encourage. Praise God that nothing can stop Him from achieving His plans and purposes. Praise God that His truth cannot be completely distorted by any one of us imperfect people. Praise Jesus Christ for who He is and what He has done, and that He continues to allow fragile vessels with us to proclaim His glorious message. What a privilege!

James Chen

James is a Philosophy graduate from the University of Sydney and is currently a teaching and learning manager of a senior high school tutoring centre. James is a member of St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Carlingford and loves reading and teaching the Bible.

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