5 Reasons Why the Sunday Sermon is Boring
Stephen Bedard, a Christian apologist and blogger I respect, recently wrote about “5 Things You Can Do While Your Pastor is Preaching.” They were things like taking notes and praying (always good to do), but he also included busy work like checking the veracity of Bible verses the pastor mentions, or sending a series of live tweets about the sermon.
I would suggest the only reason you would engage in any of these diversions during the public proclamation of the Gospel is because the sermon is boring. Your heart is right with God and you went to a lot of effort to attend the service. Yet, instead of listening intently, you find yourself fiddling with your phone. The problem is generally in the pulpit, not in the pew, and I suggest ideas to help preachers.
The Anatomy of Boring Preaching
Bad writing makes boring sermons. A sermon in written form can be sharpened. This is not to say that a pastor must read his sermon to the congregation, only that thoughts be declaimed in an organized and compelling way. As Sir Francis Bacon said, “Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.”
Too many preachers are confused about their role. They make up all kinds of excuses to cover their tracks. Here are a few that come to mind:
1. “My job is to spend time in the study.”
Sadly, many preachers believe that. And why not? You have to be the bookish sort to want to go to seminary anyway. I have a seminary degree, but I think any pastor who spends more than 10 hours in the study (assuming two messages a week) is hiding out. Why do I say that? Because Jesus was continually teaching and preaching and he did not spend 30-40 hours per week in study. He already knew his stuff. He took time off to commune with his Father, however, and that’s a good thing for any preacher to do.
2. “I get my sermon from God.”
God is not boring, so I’ll consider that “magical thinking” on your part until I hear you speak. If people are texting during your sermon, or thinking about lunch, you are likely out of touch with the people in the pew. They are not there to hear you preach; they have come for other reasons and are just enduring your sermon from a sense of obligation.
3. “I am not in the pulpit to entertain.”
No, of course not. But you are there to engage your congregation. Think about the difference between the two. To paraphrase Mark Twain, its the difference between a lightning bug and lightning. If you cannot grab and hold the attention of people, then why are you behind the pulpit?
4. “TV and Social Media causes people to have a short attention span.”
Sure. However, according to statistics, people watch TV on an average of 4.5 hours per day. They are online an average of 2.4 hours per day (both computer and smartphone). Yet, they doze off, or need diversions, after 10 minutes of your sermon. What’s wrong with that picture? The “short attention span” idea is a cop-out in my view. In reality, “spoken word” (talk radio, audiobooks and podcasts) is a skyrocketing medium. For example, according to the Wall Street Journal, “Audiobooks have ballooned into a $1.2 billion industry, up from $480 million in retail sales in 1997.” People are willing to listen to an audiobook for hours because the speaker and the story engage them.
5. “No matter what I say, God will speak to at least someone through my sermon.”
I hope so. But if you believe the Bible is a book if power, as I do, then a weak presentation of it does not adorn the message of Hope. Civilization was transformed by the preaching of the Gospel, so it is a bad sign if people are checking ball scores, or are otherwise preoccupied, as you preach.
It’s not your hearers who have a problem—it’s you. It is your responsibility to preach with power, conviction and authority. Or at least be interesting.
How Preachers Can Engage their Congregation
My old Professor, Dr. Larry Richards wrote a book called Creative Bible Teaching, as well as about 250 books after that. In it, he outlined a four-step procedure that every preacher should use to write a sermon. It is disarmingly simple, but it is an antidote to the boring preaching that keeps people staring at their cell phones.
The procedure: Hook, Book, Look, Took.
First, you HOOK listeners with a story. One your listeners can relate to. If you are a preacher, and you don’t start with a story, you have already lost your audience. Just stop speaking. You’ll never get them back.
Then, after a relevant story, take them to the BOOK, the Bible. Spend 10 minutes delving into the hardcore theology you love so much. But not more than 10 minutes. It’s boring to almost everyone but you. Even though theology is very important, and no one denies that, it is most effective in small doses. Force-feeding is a form of torture.
Now, help your people LOOK into the meaning of the Book as it relates to their own lives. If you insist on talking about Supralapsarianism for 10 minutes, at least explore the options with them. Help them examine what you said from different perspectives. When you help them to look at your proposition in light of others, they become persuaded to adopt the idea you have expounded.
Finally, there is the TOOK—offer ways they can integrate the teaching into their lives. After all, changed lives—both for now and eternity—is what the Gospel is about.
Proposed Preacher Training
In my view, ALL preachers should be required to do three things before they enter the pulpit for the first time:
1. Learn to tell stories. The ideal requirement is 250 hours of supervised training, mano-a-mano, with groups of lively 7-year-olds. That is a test worth passing. If you can learn to engage a group of 7-year-olds with stories, you will become a prince among preachers. Remember, when it comes to a preaching modality, Jesus was primarily a storyteller.
2. Learn to listen to people. The ideal training for this would be to send a would-be preacher on a 100-hour listening tour among the homeless. The preacher-in-training would remain on the street the entire time. The purpose would be to hear people, not speak to them. Preachers would then be required to write at least 12 sermons based on the real human needs they heard and saw, using scripture passages they already know. Later, a pastor can use the same method with his own people. This is the best training for meeting the spiritual needs of a congregation.
3. Learn the Bible and Theology while in seminary, but study it in your free time once you get a church. Loading your desk with commentaries, or using a $10,000 computerized library, and spending 30-40 hours writing sermons is not a wise use of time. As a writing genre, sermons are highly derivative. If you know who you are talking to, it is easy to find what to talk about. It is foolhardy to try to reinvent the wheel with endless hours of study.
“Study” (as rendered in the KJV) is not really the point of 2 Timothy 2:15. The ESV puts the idea in perspective: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” I have personally hung out with Christians in Siberia (and other remote places) who were able to rightly handle the word of truth even though they had no formal education, nor the luxury of 40 hours per week of sermon research.
We already know preaching is foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:21). However, it is transforming foolishness when done properly. Better writing, based on the Hook, Book, Look, Took methodology, will enable people to see Christ in the spoken word.