What makes preaching ineffective?
Pastors are called to proclaim Christ and present everyone fully mature in him (Col. 1:28). Yet the parable of the soils (Mark 4) shows us that there’s a significant spiritual battle everywhere the Word is sown. Satan is all too eager to take away the Word implanted in a heart; persecution and the troubles of life can have a similarly devastating effect. In other words, often there are spiritual reasons why a sermon doesn’t produce change.
But there may also be practical reasons why a given sermon is ineffective. Implicit in the calling to be an approved worker who correctly handles the Word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15) is a need to reflect honestly on our own weaknesses.
I’ve been trying to do this, and I offer my conclusions with some hesitation, since the exercise lays my own heart bare. Nevertheless, I believe it is useful. Some things will resonate, and you—like me—will be driven once again to hard work soaked in prayer.
Here are seven types of sermons that can render a preacher’s labors ineffective.
1. The Exegetically Light Sermon
Understanding a passage can be difficult. Some parts of Scripture are harder than others (2 Pet. 3:16). Getting a passage right—interpreting it correctly—isn’t a five-minute operation. We must grapple with paragraph and sentence structures, vocabulary, original languages, authorial intent, and a host of other things many in our congregation think little about.
Therein lies the temptation. Because I have a firmer grasp on the Bible than most others in my congregation, I could neglect the hard work of exegesis and they might not notice. I can do a pretty good job of giving the impression that I’ve done the needed work without actually doing it.
2. The Exegetically Heavy Sermon
The flip side of the first approach is dressing to impress. I can load my sermon with so much exegesis that the congregation is left cold and unmoved. I’ve heard a lot of preaching like this, and I confess it sometimes characterizes my own. The art of preaching isn’t only about what you put in, but what you leave out.
The art of preaching isn’t only about what you put in, but what you leave out.
Lurking behind this kind of sermon is the possibility that my preparation itself is imbalanced. I can always spend more time on a passage in my study. There is always another commentary to read, another blog post to sift. I like this stuff. It excites me. But my preparation time is limited, so it’s possible to do too much exegesis and be thoroughly prepared in terms of what the text means—and yet have given virtually no thought to how to best convey this meaning to the congregation.
3. The Complex Sermon
An ex-builder once told me he measured the depth of the sermon by how little he understood of it. I finally grasped this when we sat together under a bewildering preacher who left me reeling. “Brilliant,” my friend said to me, “just brilliant.”
We don’t exist as preachers to dazzle people with high and mighty intellectualism. It’s easy for us (and our congregants) to confuse profundity with complexity, failing to understand that this confuses categories and communication strategies. It’s quite possible—indeed, necessary—to be both profound and also simple.
4. The Unintelligible Sermon
There are countless reasons why my speech may be difficult to understand, including tone, language, pace, and volume. Some of these are in my control, some are not. However, and this is Preaching 101, if people can’t hear me—physically, emotionally, or intellectually—then I have said nothing at all.
5. The Academic Sermon
Preaching is an oral form of communication, something expositors too often fail to grasp. We communicate differently in oral form than we do in written form. And yet many sermons sound like (and indeed, are) essays—like an academic paper read from a lectern.
How can such proclamation be digested, except by a small minority? Lengthy quotes (an excellent time-filler for lazy preachers, I find) are highly unlikely to work when read out loud. This is a key battleground for many preachers. Most of us write our sermons down in some form, so we have to discipline ourselves to communicate our notes in oral form.
6. The Casual Sermon
The antidote to such dead formality is often to meander through the shrubbery without picking any particular path. But a casual sermon can also be hard to follow. So keen are we to avoid formality that we lack any structure, direction, or construction that will serve our hearers.
Of course they can stomach 60 minutes of my vague wanderings, I tell myself. So sentences never really come to an end, they just tail off. Thoughts aren’t complete or logical. Random ideas are much harder to digest than ordered ones and so, while we must avoid the formality of delivering a written essay, we aren’t called to chat away like love-struck teenagers who prattle on for hours without saying anything at all.
7. The Disconnected Sermon
It’s far too easy for my sermon to be disconnected from the people I’m trying to reach. I don’t serve in a large church, even by U.K. standards, and yet we still have 60-plus nationalities, people from different social backgrounds, various age groups, and so on. I’m not pretending it’s easy to make a sermon stick. But the preacher who simply doesn’t bother because it’s too hard will soon find his preaching ineffective.
The disconnect might happen in a different way. It’s quite possible (you’ve never done this, right?) to force generalized application into the text that bears no connection to it. It’s amazing, I find, how many Bible passages have the three applications already there: read your Bible more; pray more; witness more.
In connected sermons, the application goes with the flow of the text, properly understood, and resonates with the people you have been given to serve.
You may have other weaknesses, as we all do, but here’s a place to start. What did you preach last weekend, and how does that sermon measure up?
A previous version of this article appeared at Proclamation Trust.