Preacher’s Toolkit: How Should I Respond When I Deliver a Dud?

Editors’ note: “Preacher’s Toolkit” is a monthly series that seeks to answer questions related to preaching. If you have a preaching-related question or issue you’d like for us to answer, please write us at [email protected]. We recently launched an Expository Preaching Project, for which TGC Council pastors will prepare free instructional resources on expository preaching in both video and print formats in six strategic languages. We’re prayerfully seeking to raise $150,000 to fund the project. To make a donation, please click here and select “Expository Preaching” from the designation list.

Previously: 


A lady approached me at church and said sympathetically, “I thought last week’s sermon was really good.” She was trying to comfort me about the previous week’s message. Someone on my staff told her how unhappy I’d been with it, and for days she’d waited to assuage my doubts and disappointment.

“I heard you thought you were terrible,” she said, “and I wanted you to know God really used it in my life. In fact, I’ve been meditating on it and studying my notes all week. It was a significant spiritual marker for me—exactly what I needed to hear and to learn.”

Indeed, she had heard correctly. Part of Monday staff meeting is the “homiletical postmortem” in which my staff and I discuss what went right and wrong the previous day. To be sure, I’m far more critical of my labors than anyone else is, but my fellow pastors also help me answer what did or didn’t work and why. The sermon this dear lady referenced was, in my expert opinion, a dud, which I’d shared with my staff. Their halfhearted and muted reassurance was not convincing, and with good reason.

Every preacher with at least three weeks of experience knows that feeling—like swimming upstream in a river of Jello. The yawning chasm between intention and execution threatens to overwhelm and swallow the entire platform. How should a preacher handle the occasional failure even after extensive study and spiritual preparation? I recommend three things.

1. Look around the sermon.

Other factors outside the preacher’s control can have a profound effect on the sermon’s delivery. A substantial and incessant distraction in the sanctuary, an anemic and sluggish selection of songs, or some other service element that gets bungled can suck the energy out of the service and set the preacher up for failure.

2. Look within the sermon.

Was the failure more about the handling of the text, the construction of the message, or the delivery? In my case, I rarely miss the big idea of the text. Even on bad days, I typically explain the passage’s sense well enough that my congregation understands the author’s meaning.

My struggle is usually with organization or delivery. I often don’t like my outline. When things go poorly, I have to ask: Was the sermon itself hard for me to get across, or did my delivery—specifically my lack of passion and energy—weaken and undermine what otherwise would have been a good sermon? Did I fail to illustrate and explain complex truths, or did I spend so much time in illustration that it distracted? I try to be honest with myself, but also ask others who know my preaching and whose opinions I trust.

3. Look beyond the sermon. 

This is perhaps most important. I have often been delighted to find that the Holy Spirit still uses bad sermons when they are built on the eternal truth of God’s Word. I want to work diligently to make every sermon as good as possible in content and delivery, but long ago I realized that God, while honored by and worthy of my best effort, does not depend on my skill.

I have often been delighted to find that the Holy Spirit still uses bad sermons when they are built on the eternal truth of God’s Word. . . . While honored by and worthy of my best effort, God does not depend on my skill.

The precious lady who encouraged me reminded me of that. It was a dud. I still believe that. To her, however, it was a dud God used to teach and shape her.

I can’t wait to preach again next week.

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