When I was first asked to write an article on the topic of preaching, I had a lot of questions. What gives me the authority to judge a sermon? What if I say the wrong thing? What if all the pastors that I know end up hating me? To be honest, I am still not totally sure if I’m qualified (or ever will be) to write this type of article, but I’ve come to believe that there might be some merit to share about some of the things that I find distracting or helpful while listening to a sermon.
If you are a pastor reading this, I hope that you can understand that I’m not trying to be a professional sermon critic. These are just my personal opinions and I wrote this to hopefully be a useful tool for you. All these points can be taken with a grain of salt (or a bucket of it).
If you are an ordinary member of a church reading this, I hope that there will be things in here that you can relate to and if you disagree, please show me grace!
FIVE DISTRACTING THINGS
Now that I’ve prefaced this article here are 5 things that preachers do that I find distracting when listening to a sermon.
When they don’t know their audience
I’ve heard sermons given to a congregation made up of a few families in a small church in India and I’ve heard sermons given to hundreds of teens at a youth rally in Southern California. I don’t think speakers could or should give the same word-for-word message with the same metaphors and stories to both crowds. Don’t get me wrong - I believe that God’s word is enduring and applicable to all who hear it, but I also believe that it is the speaker’s job to preach the word in a way that is understandable for their listeners.
When they say “I know you’ve all heard this story before”
There are times when a pastor references a story from a well-known passage in the Bible, says the above phrase, and moves straight to the meaning behind that story. Although there are contexts in which I realize that it isn’t necessary to recount the full story, it wouldn’t hurt for pastors to turn to the story in the Bible or at least give a summary of it. I am a forgetful person when it comes to knowing my VBS stories, so I need reminders. On top of that, I’m sure a summary would be helpful for those brothers and sisters the congregation who may have never heard these stories before in following along with the message.
When they aren’t true to the text (or don’t have a text at all)
As a sermon-listener, I believe that God has given the preacher authority in delivering His truth, but I also believe that there is a fine line between having personal authority and having authority based on God’s word. I’ve heard plenty of sermons and rants on topics such as “anger” or “marriage”, but I would much rather have those opinions be based off of God’s word than solely on the speaker’s personal accounts or insights. Of course, stories and examples are always welcome, but I hope that in the meal of the sermon these anecdotes are side dishes compared to the main entrée of God’s word.
When their stories have nothing to do with the sermon
Usually, I’m pretty good at trying to understand the purposes of the stories being told. For example, speakers may want to familiarize themselves to an unfamiliar crowd by telling a funny story. Sadly, there are times when I hear a speaker tell a story in the middle of the sermon (usually after they get sidetracked) and I wonder what the point was. Even if a story can get a laugh out of me, I find that if it doesn’t connect with the message the speaker is trying to convey, then it distracts me from understanding that message.
When their character doesn’t match their message
I have to be careful here because I don’t want to make it seem like I believe pastors have to be perfect. I understand that God’s grace is sufficient to cover all those who stumble and fall but put their faith in the saving-work of the cross. With that being said, for me, there is no bigger obstacle to hearing God’s word than when I don’t trust the person giving it. I’ve found it difficult to listen clearly to a preacher speak on God’s love and gentleness after I watched him make fun of someone’s insecurities the week before.
FIVE HELPFUL THINGS
Now that we’ve gone through all the things I find distracting, here are 5 things that a speaker does that I find helpful when listening to a sermon.
When they deliver a hard truth or practical application
The best types of sermons leave me wanting to express an act of faith or believe a certain truth about God that I found difficult to believe before. I like it when speakers deliver God’s truth in a way that pushes me to live out my life contrary to my sinful nature.
When I see them worshiping before they preach
This is a personal preference, but when I catch glimpses of my pastors or the speaker engaged in genuine worship, it encourages me as a member of the congregation because I know that he or she is valuing a vertical relationship with the Lord.
When they are clear in their delivery
It may be obvious, but I like it when the speaker is audible and there is clarity in their voice. I know public speaking is hard and doesn’t come naturally to a lot of people, but I think the congregation can tell when the preacher is unsure of what he is saying.
When they bring in current events
There are a lot of things going on in our world, and I believe a lot of fears, worries and anxieties need to be addressed. I find it helpful when we take time to pray for the things that are happening around us and we are reminded of our purpose as salt and light.
When they confess their weaknesses
Some of the most memorable sermons I’ve listened to were the ones where the speaker confessed his or her own struggles, sins and shortcomings. It may be a scary proposition to talk about their weaknesses, but when pastors are honest about themselves and share about how God’s grace is moving in their lives, I get a clearer picture of what Christ is doing and has done in the lives of those He ransomed.
In conclusion, I know that I’m not off the hook and that there are a lot of responsibilities on my own end as a sermon-listener, which includes supporting and praying for those who are called to share God’s word. I have had the privilege of being led and taught by many humble and loving individuals and I hope that this article could provide some insight from an ordinary member of the congregation.
Daniel Nam is a member of Gospel Life Mission Church and is pursuing a career in education.