Why Sermons Sometimes Suck

His words held me captive.

It was my first time watching a stand-up comedy routine, and I couldn’t believe that one person on a stage with a mic could hold the attention of his hearers with such dominance.

Later that week on Sunday morning, I watched as a few of my peers yawned and stared into space while a pastor took another stage with another microphone.

I remember thinking, “How come sermons can’t be as engaging?”

More than ten years removed from that moment, I understand now that comparing stand-up and sermons is like comparing apples and oranges. They’re completely different in form, content and purpose. One entertains for ratings and profit, while the other edifies for repentance and praise.

But aren’t there times we’ve wished for a more little overlap? We’ve all wished for a little bit more. We’ve all craved better sermons.

But have you ever asked yourself what you mean by “better” sermons?

A Deeper Issue

Have you noticed that people can respond to the same sermon totally differently? This could be for a variety of reasons, but I think one key factor is the posture of the listener.

The Bible demonstrates that there are different kinds of people who hear and respond to sermons.

There was one group called the Corinthians. When this group heard a particular preacher, the members had a difficult time taking his sermons seriously. They said, “…his bodily presence is weak (unimpressive stage presence), his speech of no account (worthless).” (2 Corinthians 10:10)

Now the second group of listeners were the Bereans. When the Bereans heard the same preacher, they “…received the word with all eagerness ….” (Acts 17:11)

Two groups, same preacher, different response.

Maybe the preacher was on a slump when preaching for the Corinthians? Maybe it was mechanical issues like sermon structuring and bad transitions or maybe it was stylistic problems, with not enough passion and humor?

Or maybe it was the Corinthians’ poor listening — the preacher was the Apostle Paul.

The Disconnected Heart

The Scripture makes it clear that our ability to listen and hear is a deeper issue than mere biology. In fact, the Bible makes a connection between hearing of God’s truth and the condition of our hearts. 

Doesn’t Jesus make this connection in the well-known parable of the sower in Mark 4:1-41? A farmer sows seeds (God’s Word) on different soil (hearts) but only some absorb and bear fruit? How often does Jesus say, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear?” He’s talking about the heart’s sensitivity to the things of God.

So, it is entirely possible to hear but not sincerely listen or want to listen because of a hardened heart. 

Have you ever considered the possibility that the sermon doesn’t connect because your heart is disconnected?

Could be that if Paul guest spoke at your church, you’d find him boring?

Style Over Substance

Poor listening happens when Christians listen for style over substance. It’s when we value the demonstration of presentation over the demonstration of the power of God’s Spirit.

That’s precisely what the Corinthians did. They subscribed to the public speaking culture of eloquence perpetuated by the orators of their time and imported those stylistic standards to judge sermons blinding them to the very substance Paul was trying to convey. They used apples to compare oranges and so were unable to hear Paul’s sermons for what they were, and in the process exposed themselves as lacking spiritual substance. See the irony?

The Corinthians, too busy examining the sermons, neglected to examine the actual Scriptures, which is the source and substance of all preaching! But the Bereans did this right. They examined the Scriptures. 

Are you a Berean or a Corinthian? Sermon examiner or Scripture examiner?

A Preacher’s Plea

Please hear me. I am not saying that all sermons and all preachers are equal because they’re not. Bad preaching is as real as bad sushi. As a preacher who geeks out about sermon crafting, it drives me nuts when I sense unpreparedness.

I just don’t think all the blame should be placed on preachers while denying the possibility that we may be at fault as listeners. We may be importing our culture’s demands and expectations into our Sunday morning listening.

Is it okay to enjoy one preacher more than another based off of stylistic differences? Of course, but there’s a difference between having preferences and being enslaved by them.

Now if you’re sincerely trying, but struggling because your pastor has a habitual pattern of being unclear, unprepared, and unengaging, I don’t blame you for feeling frustrated. Please talk to a trustworthy leader at your church. If the sermons continue to be confusing and unrelatable, leaving the church could be on the table, but exercise due diligence! Talk to God. Talk to your leaders. Maybe even talk to your pastor.

But at the end of the day, let’s remember that we can only blame others so much before examining our own heart’s posture.

With that being said, here are some practical ways we can cultivate a Berean spirit:

1. Discover your Expectations

As a preacher, I’m always amused by the answers I get when I ask someone what they expect out of a sermon. Everyone has opinions about a given sermon, how great it was (or how bad), until asked what he or she wants to get out of preaching in the first place. We’re not really sure. Yet many good sermons keep dying from expectations of “great” ones without really knowing what “great” means. 

Discovering and crystallizing our expectations gives us something to work off of whether it’s correcting a blind spot or cementing a good one. Maybe our expectations are too high, too low, Biblical or not, but we won’t know until we discover our grid for listening to them in the first place.

So before you want a sermon to “blow your mind,” contain “solid truths,” or be “engaging,’ ask yourself, “What do I expect and desire from sermons?” 

2. Maximize Your Sermon Input

People take in sermons differently. Some take in best by taking rigorous notes. Others just need to write down a bullet point or memorable quote. Others just need to be in the moment. Figure out how you best process a sermon and then use that process every time.

3. Get Community Input

Ask someone after the service, “How did the sermon speak to you?”

Hearing from others will not only encourage you but reinforce the belief that your perspective of the sermon is not the be-all and end-all. A “decent” sermon for you may have been the most important sermon for the person next to you.

May we be cautious of the temptation to believe God’s sole intent on Sunday morning is to somehow preach to “me” more than the single mom, struggling marriage, dysfunction-riddled family, etc.

Additionally, this will reinforce the corporate element of exhortation that believers ought to rely on each other side by side, and not just on the man on the stage.

4. Encourage the speaker

Don’t just tell the preacher, “Thanks” or “Good sermon” but specify how you were impacted.

Verbalization will not only encourage your pastor, serving to remind you that your pastor is a human being, but also solidify in your mind that you had in fact received and heard from God that day. You’ll be glad you did it. 

5. Participate in the sermon through prayer

Have you ever considered that you can actually participate in the sermon preparation and delivery process through prayer? Prayer for yourself, your pastor, and your church?

We all want the preacher to do a good job. We also say we believe in the power of prayer. Strange how infrequently we put the two together right?

Could you imagine what God could do if you spent just 15 seconds praying for your pastor’s sermon preparation on a Wednesday afternoon? Have you considered that that God could use that prayer to empower the actual sermon and the hearts of people, including your own?

I always found it odd how my parents’ generation would walk into the church building, sit in a pew, and pray before doing anything. (Why not say hi to someone first? So anti-social!) But when I observe the way they process sermons and their deep spirituality, I can’t help but wonder if they were onto something we haven’t quite figured out yet. 

I’ll never forget a vision trip to co-teach at a seminary in Myanmar while I was in college. I watched 20 or so Burmese students in their teens and early 20s listen intently to 8 hours worth of Bible lectures for 5 straight days. No engaging powerpoint presentations yet there was no shifting, yawning, or a guy in the back with his laptop checking Facebook. It was hearts captivated to the glorious truths of God. They were Bereans.

I’ve heard some stylistically flavorful preachers and honestly, I don’t really remember their sermons although I do remember being very impressed at the time. Interestingly, the sermons I still vividly recall to this day are by preachers most of us haven’t heard of nor would they be invited to speak at a conference anytime soon. In those moments, I was held captive to the power of God’s Word.

Pastor Steve Bang Lee is the College Pastor and Teaching Ministry Lead at Living Hope Community Church in Brea, CA. He received his B.A. from Cal Poly Pomona and M.Div. from Talbot School of Theology. Steve also serves on the Board for CCM (Crossroads Campus Ministry).