Here are a few tips for making your sermons truly lousy, eminently forgettable and completely ineffective. Check what you have planned for tomorrow—can you avoid these traps?
1. Quote too many scriptures or scholars.
Everyone already knows that you are an expert; that’s why they are listening attentively. There is no need for you to prove yourself. A whirlwind tour through scriptures and scholars, quoting them seemingly at random and for diverse or trivial purposes, is necessarily superficial, since time prevents you from examining them properly.
Scriptural gymnastics confuse younger Christians since they are not equipped to follow, and it feeds the pride of older Christians, which causes them to sin. The purpose of the sermon is to edify the congregation in their faith, not to convince them that you swallowed a chain reference Bible or a seminary rolodex.
Scriptures and scholars are different. If you quote a lot of scriptures that are thematically related and you use them to corroborate your argumentation, you can use as many as you like. In fact, it is a big plus. If you quote too many scholars, however, it will backfire on you, no matter how adroitly you use them. People will think you don’t have any personal convictions or that you are insecure, because they instinctively know that whoever invokes authority generally has none of their own.
This mistake is most often made by new ministers who are fresh from the seminary. It takes them a while to adjust to the fact that they are preaching to a congregation, not to a professor. You are preaching to edify the congregation’s faith, not to enhance your reputation.
2. Use illustrations that only part of your congregation can understand.
The purpose of the sermon is to include all listeners into the gospel. Most sermons are delivered to mixed audiences. In his letters, Paul balanced every Jewish illustration with a Greek equivalent. He knew that an illustration that only a portion of the congregation (however large) can appreciate would exclude, lose or alienate the rest.
For example, suppose the preacher is a new father and he innocently tries to draw a lesson from his toddler’s antics. Teenagers cannot relate; they tune out the whole sermon. Older parents chuckle at Papa’s inexperience, missing his point. Oldsters wax wistful, and their minds wander non-constructively. The infertile wish they had stayed home. Only a select few get the point.
If you have an illustration that only appeals to one part of your congregation, try to think of parallel illustrations that cover the other parts of your congregation; then use them together.
3. Use irrelevant illustrations.
Sometimes preachers get nervous in the pulpit because they have forgotten their material, lost their chain of thought, their audience, or their confidence, or they feel the Spirit has temporarily forsaken them. So they tell an irrelevant joke whose real purpose is to ask the congregation for approval. This happens to all preachers at one time or another.
If it happens to you, don’t panic, but you should pray about it afterward. The problem may have been poor sermon planning, or perhaps you were forgivably distracted by some unexpected event. It may also be the Holy Spirit demonstrating His powerful, essential and inspiring presence in your ministry by withholding it temporarily. Do not fail the test and lose heart!
4. Go for the laughs.
Humor is good, necessary and appropriate for sermons. After all, many incidents in scripture are funny, such as the story of the woman at the well who rather dimwittedly saw Jesus’ living water as a way to get out of work, hilariously missing his point! You should not hesitate to use topical humor.
However, resist the temptation to become a stand-up comic. The purpose of pulpit humor is to relieve the dramatic tension, to hold the congregation’s attention or to drive a point home. The purpose of irrelevant jokes is to seek approval from the congregation. You are to seek the approval of God. If you find yourself on a roll, and it isn’t announcement time, watch out! It has a quick reward, but from the wrong party.
5. Deliver an academic lecture.
A sermon is an exposition of the gospel of Jesus Christ to a general audience. It is Good News, because that is what Jesus commissioned. It should draw people inexorably to His love and forgiveness through a recounting of His life and deeds and inestimable love. Sermons appeal to the heart and soul and draw all, so that anyone can be saved through it.
Lectures appeal to the intellect and thus (but not improperly) exclude some people. Not everyone in the congregation is equipped to follow a seminary-level sermon. Classroom-style lectures are a valid format that you should neither neglect nor confuse with sermons. There is a time and a place for all things.
Preaching and teaching are two separate gifts: Teaching helps people believe what they can understand, while preaching helps people trust what is beyond their understanding.
6. Ramble aimlessly.
Your sermon, whether it is prewritten or extemporaneous, should be well organized. Don’t make your sermons into longhorn steers—a point here and a point there, and you know what’s in the middle. To the congregation, a five-minute ramble is subjectively twice as long as a fifteen-minute, well-organized sermon.
7. Preach too long.
I’m not going to tell you how long a sermon should be in minutes. Some sermons are too long before they even start. Others are so engrossing and so inspired you regret when they end. Sometimes a sermon has to be short because the service that day is long and involved. You don’t need to put your watch on the pulpit to see if your sermon is too long—just watch the congregation. How many people are looking at their watches?
How many are staring out the window? How many are passing notes? How many are fidgeting and restless? If you’ve lost your audience, you might as well cut your losses, close up shop and try again next week. You won’t recover by talking more.