There on the pulpit, my sermon was dead. Again. It was just too much: too heavy, too complicated, too cumbersome. It had given up its Holy Ghost. But I carried it up there to preach anyway. The truth is, after twenty years of preaching, I got lost for a while, and I preached a lot of roadkill.
For the sake of my soul and for the souls of my hearers, I’ve identified three forces from within and without that were killing my sermons before God made me able to breathe life into them again.
First, my sermons were dying under institutional pressure—the kind of pressure illustrated by a prominent member who led the pastor to the front of the church. It had been a tough year—the budget was down, as was attendance. The tight-jawed member pointed at the pulpit and said to the pastor, “You do that right, and everything else will take care of itself.”
It’s true: as a pastor you serve Jesus in an institutional setting. Sermons are a major part of moving the religious, administrative, and financial agenda of your church forward. And that can generate suffocating pressure.
For example, sometimes I must preach about child and spousal abuse, because we are a church with programs and with children in those programs. And because the church must defend the defenseless. Also, our denomination strongly urges that such sermons be preached annually. Oh . . . and our church insurance company requires us to maintain systems and policies with respect to abuse and then file the paperwork to verify it all. (If we do, we get a discount.) My sermons help fuel all of that, and I must use Scripture and invoke the name of Jesus to do so. As the man said, I need to “do that right” in a way that keeps everyone happy and causes no one to leave and keeps the budget up so that we can pay the secretary who must file all those papers. It is because of all that paperwork that my sermons were becoming dead paperwork.
Second, my sermons were dying because of my own sinful tendency to please. As the church world seems ever more performance-based and competitive, there’s a slightly sweaty preacher inside me who is eager for people’s affection and for the church to grow numerically. I was instinctively pitching the sermon into the strike zone of what people like, aiming for what works. So I would channel the ghosts of Preachers Past, or the voice patterns, buzzwords, style, or topics of Popular Preachers Present. I cushioned things too much because, years ago, a member left after I preached a sermon on abuse. I was softening things to avoid any more such pain.
All this culminates in the third reason my sermons would collapse and die: I was trying to make them do too much. I was exhausting the sermons with endless calisthenics: Can’t be too long, has to keep people awake. Got to have people sing just before it so they can stretch. Use Greek to prove I’ve studied. Nuance it, insert disclaimers at the touchy parts. Insert humor. Don’t upset people by saying the word abuse too often, and especially don’t say sexual abuse. Oh yes, and try to add some catechism.
I started to get knotted up by all this. If you’ve ever read the cartoon “Calvin and Hobbes,” you know that “Calvin Ball” is an imaginary baseball game with thirty bases and some croquet wickets plus a secret base, located in the “invisible sector.” That’s how it is with a sermon: you have to hit it hard enough (you vainly imagine) to enable you to navigate all these obstacles and touch all the bases.
These three related forces come together to strangle sermons, suffocating them under their own weight. A few months ago I wrote a sermon that I thought was pretty good. It explained the Bible. It flowed well. It incorporated careful, artistic language. It touched every base. It had humor and a lovely ending. The words behaved nicely on the page. Next day, I read it again and noticed that I had forgotten to speak about Jesus. Oh.
So I am battling, more than ever, to sweep the wretched “dead things” away, to inhale deeply, and breathe out sermons that have life! Here are four ways I’ve tried to do it, and I recommend them to you.
1. Confess and Repent
Early before a church service, I kneel down between the two front pews and confess all the conniving, wobbly, lustful, covetous, competitive, people-pleasing, and slimy things that I can detect within me. “Lord, this is so nasty . . . I’m only doing this sermon tonight because I’m getting paid to do it. I’d rather be at home watching golf.” “Father, forgive me . . . I want so badly for people to like me.”
Yes, friend, come to Jesus, get it done, lay it down. I have found no other way to stand up with confidence and dare to preach.
2. Speak As God Made You
While many members of your church like you and your sermons, a few don’t. They never have and they never will. You know this because they tell you (and they tell the elders too). Yet there you are, still trying to write the sermon that will finally make them happy.
Stop it. You are strangling God’s Word within you. Put them out of your mind and preach as you are made to preach. Be the way God made you to be. Get as real as you can with yourself—let the text talk to you, let it grip you, and then speak it from your heart. Joyfully bellow, with a paraphrase of T.D. Jakes, “Sermon, thou art loosed!”
3. Just Say It
Stop pussy-footin’ around. Instead of saying, “One of the issues with which churches today sometimes struggle, and about which we, even here, as a precaution, must be concerned, is the care and protection of children.” Instead, just say, “There are people in the world who hurt kids and who sexually assault children. For Jesus’ sake, we cannot allow or tolerate this tragedy to happen in our homes or here in church. I’d like to speak to you today from the Bible about physical and sexual abuse, and about what we can and must do to protect our kids.” Be direct. Avoid passive verbs.
4. Choose “Gospely” Topics
This summer, I’m doing a series about the End Times. Are we near the very end? What did Jesus say about it? Are you ready? Wow! Preach about Matthew 24 and then do chapter 25, one parable at a time. There’s no paperwork to file on these subjects. When is the last time you got down into the gospel? You know—heaven? Hell? Jesus?
If these four steps don’t help you resuscitate your sermons, talk to others and find out what helps them. But whatever you do, for your own sake, for the sake of the souls of your hearers, and, above all, for God’s sake: get that “dead thing” off God’s pulpit.