I am a firm believer in preaching. I spend a lot of time preparing and delivering sermons and studies. Even yesterday, I delivered a sermon in which I encouraged people to take their responsibilities as hearers of the Word seriously. You can listen to that sermon here, if you like.
But I am conscious that we often tell our people to take their responsibilities as hearers seriously without taking our responsibilities as preachers seriously. Maybe I am unfair to say we don’t take them seriously – I think we probably believe we are being very serious about it – we just don’t execute it all that well.
There are two basic things I expect any sermon to do. If it doesn’t do either of these things I think we have good grounds for saying it wasn’t a good sermon. We should expect any sermon to explain the passage and apply it to those listening. In other words, we can ask of any sermon: (1) do I understand the thrust of that passage as a result of this sermon? (2) do I know what I must do now as a result of that sermon? If we can’t answer ‘yes’ to those two questions, I think we have a duffer on our hands.
In the tradition I come from I think most sermons go awry when it comes to application. In fact, I would say bad sermons in my tradition fall into three broad categories (others types of homiletic duffer are available but these are the ones I see rolling round with frequency).
First, there are those that spend 30 minutes or so doing little more than restating what we’ve just read in the passage. It doesn’t so much help you understand as repeat, in more droning words than necessary, what you’ve just read. It’s not illuminating and a bit pointless. We all have Bible’s open, we have just read the passage, so it doesn’t help to have somebody effectively repeat it all again. Emphasising certain words for effect with no real explanation of any of them is not explaining the passage.
Second, there are those who highlight some questions that might arise from a plain reading of the text and then spend 30 minutes answering them. The questions may well be ones that you might have on reading the text cold. They might even be broadly interesting. But they are not the main point of the passage. Instead of holding out the main point of the passage and explaining its relevance to the congregation, two or three interesting questions are explored and answered making it seem more like a puzzle to be solved. The main point of the passage, however, is overlooked altogether in favour of the interesting, but probably not central, puzzling questions to be solved.
Third, and I think this is the most common duffer from my tradition, the details of the passage are relayed and helpfully explained. The general details of the passage are made clear and the sermon does a reasonable job, often with helpful illustrations, of giving the sense of what the passage says. But after half an hour, whilst I may understand the thrust of the passage, there has been no application of it to me. The best you can hope for in such sermons is a tacked on, usually very general, thought that nods in the direction of application. More often, we don’t quite even get that. We may understand the passage, its place in the book and wider Bible story line, but we never get to how it should affect our everyday life. The question of what I must do when the sermon is over is left almost entirely unanswered.
Often, when we hit on one of these anti-sermons, people switch off well before the sermon is over. The issue isn’t always that its boring (though, if we’re being honest, that is often the snoring elephant in the room). Typically, the issue is that nobody can see why it is worth their while listening. If five or ten minutes in you have given me no sense that this will have anything to say to me specifically, why would I bother listening? It becomes little more than an academic exercise and I can buy all the commentaries the preacher has probably used for myself and do it without his help.
The Smiths famously bemoaned the DJ whose music ‘says nothing to me about my life.’ If he can make this statement of a man who plays songs that bear no relation to the lives of those listening, what are we to make of the preacher who frequently preaches sermons that do the same? Whilst I’m sure we wouldn’t quite go along with Morrissey’s call for hanging, I don’t think we can blame those who nonetheless switch off altogether and think about something altogether more riveting and real world applicable, like their tax return.
Of course, we cannot make a passage applicable to those in front of us without explaining what it actually means. But all too often we content ourselves to stop at the point of explaining the passage and never move on to explain what this means for those listening. But if we divorce the text from its application there isn’t really much reason for people to listen.
I can fully understand why people stop listening when there is no evidence this passage has anything to say to them particularly. I can also understand why somebody would stop listening because, though you might have some rousing encouragement or challenging rebuke, they can’t see that the Lord is saying such things because it hasn’t been properly rooted in the passage. If people are going to see that it is the Lord speaking to them, our sermons must be firmly rooted in the passage. If people are going to see what the Lord is speaking to them specifically, our sermon must be fiercely and pointedly applicable to the people in front of us.
If we are going to work on two things in our preaching, let me encourage you to make it these: (1) what does the passage mean and (2) what does this passage mean for the people in front of you. Make sure you that you make the second of those questions clear at the top of the sermon. Be clear why anybody should bother giving you 30 minutes of their time. Once you’ve done that, tell them what the passage says and then show them what they need to do with it.
There are some great resources available on learning to preach better. There are all sorts of things you can do to help improve your preaching that you can learn from far better preachers than me. But I think if we all just committed to making the passage clear and applying it pointedly we might see a marked improvement in a lot of our preaching.