Resurrect honesty with preachers

Yesterday, I wrote about how I figure out what I am going to read. Or, rather, what I am definitely not going to read. You can read that post here. But I noted in that post that an awful lot of Christian books are not necessary. They often say nothing new nor present anything old in a new and fresh way, often they aren’t even interesting.

I got to thinking about why that might be. I can see that publishers will publish books that they think are important or books they think will sell. They may get one or other of these things wrong from time to time, but that is what they’re aiming to do. So the only explanation I can give for the vast amount of dross we produce is that people must think this book is particular good and/or important. But when I buy things based on the hype, I am often left wondering why anyone thought that about this. In the end, I can only surmise that people have been told to think that this is good, even if it isn’t.

As I was chatting about this with someone, I got to thinking that a lot of our sermons suffer this way. Because it’s not only our books that are often uninteresting, uninspiring and say nothing new. Many of our sermons suffer from the same problem. And yet, just like the books that keep being produced regardless, we see such sermons being trotted out again and again. Why does it keep happening?

You know the kind of thing I mean. The tedious 25 minutes of somebody restating the passage in almost exactly the terms we have just read, only slower and with a funny voice for emphasis as if doing that makes it mean something different. The sermons that effective re-tell you what you all know, explaining what could be explained in seconds, and then just end without application. If they do attempt application, it is 5 minutes tacked on the end and amounts to ‘isn’t Jesus wonderful’ or ‘so let’s love Jesus more’ as if that in any way applies anything they’ve said. Yet loads of this sort of preaching is around and persists despite being deathly boring, having nothing to say and presenting nothing in a fresh way or applying it helpfully into our lives.

Only, with preaching, it persists because people keep telling these preachers that they preached a great sermon. I have lost count of the times I have heard people thank preachers after services for the excellent word when, as I judge it, it was boring, disjointed, not applied or all three. I am minded to think that many people just lack discernment. They tell everyone that their sermon is wonderful. That may account for some of it. But there are people who don’t think every sermon is wonderful who nevertheless insist on saying these ones are much of the time. They clearly are able to discern a difference between ones they think are good and ones that aren’t, but they do seem to say some pretty terrible ones are great. How do we account for that?

Much like people who rave about tedious and turgid books, I can only surmise that these people have been told this is what a good sermon looks like. They believe this really is good preaching because they have been told over the years that is what serious-minded Christians will think. Perhaps it is viewed as immature or unspiritual to call a boring sermon boring. Maybe it is that they’ve only ever heard this rubbish genre of preaching and so have acclimatised to it and now think this is what good preaching is. Maybe they have been told, outright, again and again this is what good preaching is because they’ve heard loads of other people say so – perhaps saying it to the preacher after the boring sermon – and they can’t be the only one to find it boring. Maybe this really is good preaching and this is what we should expect. So, as long as someone turns up and bores everyone in the way they have been taught is appropriately boring, it is a good sermon.

Which begs the question, what do we do about it? Publishers will keep publishing what people buy and call good writing. If people have been taught that boring books are actually great books, they will continue buying them and saying they’re great. Similarly, boring preachers will keep preaching boring sermons if people keep telling them, and even expecting, boring sermons. In the end, preachers will keep giving the people what they want.

All of which is to say, perhaps we need to resurrect a bit of honesty. Brutal honesty. Perhaps we need to stop buying books just because the guy whose name on the cover is famous. Perhaps we need to tell new writers that, actually, their book wasn’t very interesting and they either need to make it much better or perhaps turn their hand to something else more productive. Similarly, perhaps we need to tell our preachers and pastors, sometimes, they preached a stinker. I know we all want to be encouraging, and there are ways to do it, and there are definitely times to do it (straight after the sermon is probably not it, telling them about last week’s right before this Sunday sermon is probably not it too), but nevertheless, kindly and honestly telling them when it wasn’t a great one. If we only ever tell our preachers they are wonderful, they’re going to assume what they’re offering is pretty good. We need to have the courage to tell them when it isn’t so that they might learn and grow.

I don’t fool myself into thinking every sermon I preach is knock-it-out-the-park A-grade material. It just isn’t. I am quite sure I preach duffers. To be honest, I am likely to think my sermon not brilliant most of the time. Sometimes I am right, sometimes I am not. It is hard for me to judge my own sermons. I rely on people telling me honestly. And it isn’t helpful if all they ever say is ‘that was wonderful’ because we all know it can’t be true! The people to take seriously are those who most often tell you you’re fine, occasionally very helpful, and sometimes a bit rubbish. These people are at least being honest and they are, in truth, the ones to heed. They are the only people who will genuinely help you grow and improve. Keep such people in your life.

These people also serve the rest of us too. They have the courage to be honest and, hopefully, mean the preacher will listen, grow and serve us all the better next time. Let’s resurrect a bit of honesty and encourage our preachers where they are genuinely excellent and perhaps honestly tell them when they weren’t too. We’ll all feel the benefit if we do.