FAIL Month: Preaching Fail

June 9, 2010

As a pastor, I’ve had a lot of failed sermons.

I’d rather not mention them, or even think about them.  Chances are, no one else remembers them but me.  But they were bad.  But to my credit, I was young, inexperienced, and kind of stupid.  So you can cut me some slack.  And now I’d like to think that between sermons and teaching and other speaking engagements, I kind of know what I’m doing.

That’s why I can’t stand to listen to guys who have way more experience than me and still don’t seem to get it. 

I listen to a bunch of preachers.  Today, you have access to more preachers than ever before.  Between radio, the internet, and public access TV, any preacher can get a platform.  Yet one of the biggest reasons people say they left the church is lousy preaching.  It seems we’re going for quantity and not quality when it comes to sermons.  I’m not talking about lack of natural talent or giftedness.  I’m talking about preachers making some ridiculous mistakes to doom their sermons to failure.

I’m making a humble call to pastors everywhere to knock it off when it comes to these mistakes.

Illustration Fail

Preachers love illustrations.  We love them, because Jesus seemed to love illustrations.  Yet so many pastors give such absurd illustrations to “prove” their point, I can’t even stand to listen.  Here’s what I mean:

The cute little illustration.  Some churches still do a “childrens’ time” during worship where the pastor will give a cute little Jesus message to the children.  Then he’ll give a “grown-up” sermon, but his illustrations sound like leftover children’s messages. 

The improbable illustration.  Pastors like to give real life examples and stories that have really happened.  But since some pastors don’t have very exciting lives, they have to make stuff up.  I can sniff out a “yeah, right” illustration pretty easily, and if James Frey is going to get roasted by Oprah over A Million Little Pieces, you shouldn’t get away with it either.

The pop-culture illustration.  I mentioned Monday my disdain for the church’s love affair with butchering pop culture.  Pastors are often times the worst at using pop culture.  I’ve officially sworn off making illustrations from movies, unless I’m with a group of teenagers.  I’ve just heard too many pastors reference something that they obviously don’t really understand.  I actually heard a pastor last week reference The Simpsons.  Okay, not that original, but I’ll go with it.  But he clarifies that The Simpsons is “a cartoon show.”  Really?  Is it new?  I had no idea!  If you have to say that The Simpsons is a cartoon, you’re either telling us something we’ve known for twenty years, and thus you’re making yourself look stupid, or your audience is too old to care or know what you’re talking about, and thus you’re making yourself look stupid.  So save it.

The non-illustrating illustration.  Say a pastor has a really great story that he just has to use this Sunday.  Hmmm…doesn’t really fit any of the points he’s making.  Not to worry!  He’ll just squeeze it between to points, or make into a “funny” anecdote at the beginning, and hopefully no one will notice that story had no point, and everyone’s time has just been wasted.

Tone of Voice Fail

Every once in a while, I’ll watch a TV show or movie.  And I’ll know a really good actor when I see one, because I just can’t believe that the actor is not like his character.  I believe that he is not acting.  I come to believe that he just showed up on the set and started talking.  I can’t decide if Creed Bratton on The Office is the best actor on television, or if he just showed up at random and no one told him to leave.  Neither would surprise me.

Preachers are not actors.  They never come across as great thespians or masters of theater.  I can always tell a bad actor-preacher, because I say to myself, “There’s no way that guy talks that way at home or to his friends.”

You know what I mean.  Preachers get in “the zone.”  They take on another personality.  Some pastors get really hyped up and get a puffed up pulpit personality.  Other guys take on a softer, more “spritual” tone.  If a pastor ever addresses the audience as “friends,” you know he’s trying to be an actor.  No one sits at home with a group of friends and says, “Friends…”  Unless they’re pretending to be a preacher.  There are a lot of preachers I like who do this, but every time they call me “friend,” I’m not thinking about their message anymore.

What I find even more offensive is when preachers ridicule this “perverse generation,” to borrow Jesus’ words.  They’ll ramble on and on about how much his childrens’ generation has screwed everything up, as if his generation had nothing to do with it. 

Here’s a tip to all preachers.  Never use the pronoun “you.”  Never point your finger and tell the audience what they need to do.  Only use the pronouns “I” or “we.”  Makes you sound like a guy who’s willing to take your own advice.

Logic Fail

This is the biggest.  A preacher can take a condecending tone and use inane illustrations, but if his message just doesn’t make sense, he’s done.  But far too many preachers do mental somersaults in their sermons, and the audience doesn’t think twice about the fact that what the man said just doesn’t make sense!

One of the best books I had to read in seminary was Logical Fallacies.  Anyone who isn’t in love with the idea of blindly following a preacher can tell when something doesn’t make sense.  So please, stop making points from the Bible that aren’t there.  Stop “proving” things that can’t be proven.  Stop causing people to know less about what the Bible really says because they listened to you.

I think you total these factors up, and you have a huge reason why men in particular are leaving churches.  The pastors (who are mostly men) give lame stories, talk down to the men in the audience, don’t talk like real men talk, and often make conclusions that just can’t be made.  If I were a real hard working dude, I wouldn’t listen a cream puff preacher spout off that kind of nonsense.

I’ve made more than one of these mistakes before.  What have you seen preachers do?  Or if you are a preacher, what have you been guilty of yourself?

24 responses to FAIL Month: Preaching Fail

  1. One of my college lecturers deliberately used non-illustrating illustrations to mess with people who took too detailed notes. They’d be writing down everything he said in detail only to get annoyed that the illustration had no point. Maybe that’s what some of the preachers are doing?

    Many logic fails could be prevented by reading the whole chapter or section of scripture the verse is in. Its a bit of a worry if people can make it through bible college and not realize that context matters. Even if you aren’t going to discuss the verses around the one you are focusing on, the interpretation should at least be consistent with it

  2. As the guy in the pew listening, I have to say I’ve heard all of these at some point over the years. Best I can do: Keep my heart in tune with the Master, try to glean the thing in the sermon that “is for me”, and try not to be critical after I’ve left the building.

    Your article, though, should be required reading for those in the ministry or planning to go there.

    There is a little something for you over at my place.

  3. Let’s see – I did them all of the following. They are enshrined on cassette tape which is a blessing for future generations.

    Reading from your favorite books. If I wanted to read Paul Tilich or John MacArthur, I would have – and sadly I did. Might as well quote Ozzy Osborn.

    The unconvincing use of “It’s true!” I mean, if it’s true, then why would you have to tell us? Makes me think that all the previous statements are untrue.

    “The Lord told me.” Un-provable. If it bears fruit, we’ll know it.

    “Church” – I am always glad they are talking to the building, because it is often followed by some generality like “perverse generation.”

    Props – it reminds me of What’s My Line with Richard Simmons. Did you see the YouTube of Ed what’s his name trying to impress the youth with a dirt bike? He crashes into something on stage. Great point Ed, wear a helmet.

    “In closing” – it’s a signal for us to count them. There are always 3 or 4 or 5 or 6.

    “Let’s pray.” – just say “I am going to pray.” I already prayed that the sermon would be short and you weren’t listening God.

    The yearly sermons – New Year’s Vision, Mother’s Day from Proverbs 31, Jesus is the Reason for the Season, Tithing, He’s Alive!, On the Day of Pentecost – just put them on your Greatest Hits CD in the Welcome Gift Bag with the mints and email SPAM sign up card.

    Hmmm… how about we have a “true” testimony and savor the goodness of the Lord, and you can sit back down in the front row.

  4. I really, really try not to make these mistakes. My pastor growing up wasn’t too bad with all of this, but my first boss drove me crazy. Some days, I was literally embarrassed to be on staff due to his preaching. When I get my chances to preach, I try to make the most of them by not being an idiot, or at least being my own kind of idiot.

    He had it all. He condescended. He would make a pop culture reference, but every time he did, he’d put both of his hands up and shake them like he was making fun of whatever he was referencing. He ripped the young generation, making sure to note that I had my work cut out for me from the pulpit. The students loved this. And perhaps greatest of all was his lack of logic. He was a hardcore believer in the denomination we were a part of, so he didn’t really care what the Bible said. He stuck by the doctrine.

    Great post! Thanks for the laugh and frustration!

  5. ALLITERATION FAIL – When a pastor makes up words to fit into his series of points all starting with the same letter. What is the purpose of this? You think you’re on Sesame Street…”Today’s sermon is brought to you by the number 3 and the letter A!”

  6. Our church happens to have excellent preaching, but I’ve certainly been places where I had no idea what the pastor was saying, or felt talked down to, or disagreed with the theology.

    I’ve been a Christian for 37 years now. I rarely hear something I don’t already know, at least intellectually. Rather, I use a sermon as a point of introspection to see if I’ve slacked off in some area of growth. At worst, I use the time to write something else–a bad sermon can inspire a good blog article. :-)

    Mostly, I go to church for the chance to worship with other believers. With all the Christian resources available, we can get fed lots of places besides church.

  7. I wouldn’t go as far as wheeling out most logical fallacies (e.g. appeal to authority, emotion, etc.) to pick at sermons, I do enjoy facepalming during a sermon or reading a book because the minister/author just undercut everything they just said with a lovely non-sequitur.

    My most recent favourite is in Francis Chan’s Crazy Love, where he spends half of the book telling us how he downsized his life, and then tells us that essentially the only way to be a Christian is to give to the poor until it hurts, and tells us charming stories about folks who give up everything to treat foot fungus in Ethiopia… only at the very beginning of the concluding thoughts to undo it all by saying that God might not be calling you to do any of what he just spent the last four chapters telling you you needed to do, and your calling in life might just be to love your neighbour. I was so stunned by the magnitude of the non-sequitur that I could only laugh. In fact, I’m laughing now thinking about it.

  8. I hate that my pastor has stopped preaching from Scripture. Oh, he uses randomly-pulled (out-of-context) passages to prove whatever point he’s on (of course scouting out the various versions to find the one that says what he wants to say), and there’s a scripture passage that we all stand up and read together from the projectors, but the pastor doesn’t just expound on Scripture anymore. He’s a REALLY nice guy and a good friend, but he’s spent too much time reading “Purpose-Driven” material and too little time reading Scripture. It’s usually a breath of fresh air when he’s out-of-town or something and we have a guest preacher.

    And that’s REALLY sad.

    • I normally go back and forth. I’m feeling it’s time to unpack a new book of the Bible, as I’ve done a few of my own series for a bit. That’s something that people can never agree on. To some people, a sermon couldn’t possibly be relevant if it’s just straight through the Bible. Never!

      • …unless it’s straight through the Bible into real life situations.

        Our pastors/teachers tend to preach from the Scripture. Our senior pastor (he hates that title as he’s about the ‘middle’ age of the church -41!) loves to read passages of Scripture, and makes time to tell the youth (under 28) of the importance, esp in these times, of knowing and reading the Scripture. They also tend to preach from and explain the context at the time and the relevance/application now. For example, we are going through the book of Luke at the moment, and Mark (pastor) explained how in Jesus’ time there where the haves and the poor and the poorest of poor, and most of the ones who followed Jesus were those who had nothing. So in Luke 6 where Jesus is saying ‘blessed are the poor’ he is referring to those who have nothing materially (as opposed to Matt 5 where it says blessed are the poor in spirit). This really made me (and prob others) just rethink who/what Jesus was saying.

  9. As a subcatagory of the illustration fail, scientific illustrations that take more explaining than the actual message!

  10. Well, the pastor at the church where we were members (soon-not-to-be) kept walking a line which we felt was edging toward heresy. And yelling at the congregation. And saying how awful all the other churches are. We decided to check it out because we didn’t believe it. And then he crossed that line & began to preach what is not scriptural.

    Turns out that as members, we can’t attend any other church. (He says it is in the constitution) & we were excommunicated! Except we also learned that he hasn’t the power to do that.

    My concern is that most of the people listening to him turned off their sense of logic when listening to him. “If Pastor says it, it must be so.” There were NO checks on him & what he said. No one was calling him to account for preaching non-Scriptural doctrine.

    What i found, once he started using logic that didn’t play out, he began using “illustrations” from his counseling sessions, saying negative things about other churches that are not true, and using rancid “information” from email stories (which he did not check & were not true), there is no way i’ll ever trust him again.

    THAT is true fail, as opposed to not quite doing what you want/saying what you feel on an occasional Sunday.

  11. The logic fail is the worst for me. Our pastor was recently doing a series about Jonah. He was trying to prove that Jonah was a real character. He spoke some about some historical evidence for Nineveh’s existence and then followed it up with, “That’s truth! That’s science!” In all. three. services. Ugh. Not a logical fallacy per se, but certainly not any kind of use of the word in the way that it’s intended. Just saying that something is “science” doesn’t make it so.

    Generally I don’t find that our pastor falls into the other categories (and really, he doesn’t fall into this one that often), but I’m a lot more likely to notice a logic fail than any other.

  12. I have a variation of the “illustration fail” which is “exessive illustrations.” The first time I attended church that my future husband loved attending, the associate pastor preached for the first time. He averaged five illustrations per point for the first three points and then realized that he was fifteen minutes past the time he was supposed to stop and had to quickly spew out the last five. They were all entertaining and to the point, but probably only one or two were really needed. Midway between illustration #4 & 5 of point 2, when I realized that he hadn’t even made it halfway through his points, the Lyle Lovett song “Church” started playing in my head: “The preacher, he kept preaching….”

  13. I get what you’re saying. I agree with the last 2 fails, but I have no issues with the illustrations, maybe the “yeah right” scenarios. I can usually sniff out when they didn’t do any reading or research for their sermon and they’re scratching their head and going, “Um, um, God is taking this sermon a different way.”

    I kind of look at it this way: He should just be real and talk to his sheep like he talks to his own children. Getting behind that podium makes them try too hard and they lose what they’re trying to say. I guarantee if his son is having some problems, he doesn’t make a 3 point sermon but just tells him in simple terms.

    Do you think you’re too hard on yourself in your sermons, Matt?

  14. Beats me how any pastor/preacher can say that his sermon failed.

    If the Word, which is “living and active and powerful”, has been included in the sermon, who can know what the Holy Spirit has accomplished in a person’s life through it? Didn’t God even use a donkey once, to get His message across? Seems to me we do God a great disservice by talking about failed sermons. And we certainly put ourselves up on a pedestal if we think it all depends on us and our presentation.

    Yes, we pray, study and give God our best when we preach, but we are simply sowing the seed — it’s God, by the Holy Spirit, who gives the increase and works the Word into a person’s life.

    The seed was sown in my life by one of the most obnoxious Christians one could ever meet! But she used the Word, and it took root in my life and brought me to faith in Jesus. We are “unprofitable servants” but His Word works and endures forever. When we wait on the Holy Spirit to help us in the preparation of our sermons, we can depend on Him to do His work through us, no matter how imperfect our presentation may seem to be.

    Just a ‘lurker’ dropping by to comment :}

  15. Not a preacher. But I think your advice here can be applied to blogs, too. Early in my blogging I used the word “You” and talked down to my readers.

  16. The pastor at the church I go to normally gives the sermons, but when he goes on vacation one of the associate pastors does it.

    This one guy sounds like Reverend Billy from the Church of Stop Shopping (thought provoking documentary about materialism that will send you on a guilt trip if you ever want to buy anything after you watch it, especially if you’re buying something at Disney World). In other words, what I think Jonathan Edwards would preach like if he was trying to be a young, hip preacher today. I can’t take someone seriously when, like you said, they speak to me in a tone that I KNOW they don’t use in every day life.

    Church=NOT a show. Don’t treat the congregation like an audience at a magic show.

  17. I actually had a preacher when I was growing up say during one of his sermons that “If the sun went out, we’d still have the moon for light, but that’s it!…”

  18. Never Ending Story Fail….

    Communicating for a change mentions never talking longer than you can hold an audiences’ attention. Many sermons should end 20 mins before they did. (If they had they would have been so much more powerful!)

    I have definitely struggled with the “puffed up” personality fail. Bible college undid much of it for me, but the mega church I grew up in convinced me there was only one “right” way to preach and that was like our preacher did it.

    Critical Fail-
    One thing bible college did to me for several years, I eventually overcame it, but made me SUPER critical of EVERYTHING i heard in the pulpit. I could not enjoy anything because it could have been done better or the exegesis was not good enough or it was not what THAT passage said or… you get the picture!

    Word Fail-
    Another MAJOR failure I experienced was use of religious terminology that meant nothing to anyone who was not in Bible College. IDK why they teach all the nonsensical words when 9/10 of them should NEVER be said from a pulpit!