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.
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.
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.
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?