What makes a sermon bad?

Posted by on May 24, 2016 in Blog | 3 comments

While by instinct I prefer to focus on things that are positive, given that I posted on what makes a sermon good, it is only appropriate that we look at what makes a sermon bad. While it might be tempting to look at the earlier post and say, ‘everything that’s the opposite of the seven good points’, that is just a cop out.

So what makes a sermon bad? Here are my thoughts, and as always, feel free to add your own.

  1. A bad sermon misinforms about God. It can do that in many ways. It can be unbiblical. It can present a partial truth as a whole truth (remember the principle, when a half truth presents as a whole truth it becomes an untruth). There are so many ways to do this. When we present a Father Christmas image of God, painting a portrait of a God who loves regardless (regardless of justice, truth, mercy to the other, the wider good) – a God who never calls us to account… well that’s a sermon that misinforms. And it is dangerous misinformation because it lulls its hearers into thinking that God will never hold us to account. What happens on the day God does? The opposite is true. An angry sermon about an angry God of wrath is just as misleading. Listen to the caricatures about God that you hear on sitcoms. Where do they come from? Often from sermons that peddle in half truths – sermons where mercy, love and justice fail to meet.
  2. A bad sermon makes God seem petty or small. Sometimes we preach not Christ and Christ crucified, but our culture, and our favourite sub-cultural variants from it. We can make it seem as though God’s greatest concern (and greatest heartbreak) is that we don’t have enough bakers for the church high tea… or that God is miffed because we aren’t singing an unsingable new song enthusiastically, or there aren’t enough welcomers to greet the regulars each Sunday morning. We can confuse God’s agenda for our own, and by so doing we portray a domesticated God who is captive to our will. It makes God seem pretty petty and small. And astute listeners will ask, ‘what has this got to do with the God of the Bible?’ And if they don’t know much of the Bible, they might think, ‘Oh, so that’s all God is concerned about – keeping the program of this little group of people ticking over happily. I thought God might be bigger than that. Pity I’m wrong…’
  3. A bad sermon avoids real questions. You know you have sat through a bad sermon when you leave thinking, ‘With the best will in the world, I can’t see why any of that is even vaguely relevant.’ Bad sermons help us to forget our mandate to be God’s people in God’s world… a hurting, broken and confused world. A world asking real questions. A world that refuses to be fobbed off with platitudes.
  4. A bad sermon is a deluge of words and a drizzle of thought. I can’t remember who said that, but the basic concern was that some sermons are really a lot of waffle. You can spot an unprepared sermon… it goes on and on as the preacher desperately hopes that some brilliant insight will emerge from uncoordinated and undisciplined thinking. Bad sermons are not shaped by the biblical text. They are not even shaped by current events. They just springboard off on the preachers hobby horse,again, and again and again.
  5. A bad sermon is too clever by half, leaving the impression that orthodoxy without orthopraxy and orthopathy, is OK. Well, perhaps that also sounds too clever by half, but it is actually an important point. A bad sermon leaves the impression that the key to godly living is right thinking, divorced from godly living (orthopraxy – right practice) and godly attitudes (orthopathy – right feeling). They all matter, and sermons that are just for the head are bad, because they convey a half truth. Of course, everything in season. And it is no problem if some sermons are aimed more at the head – others more at the heart – others to spur us into action. But if week after week after week it is just about moving the emotions, or just about feeding the head, or just about getting us to embrace a new cause, something is amiss. Orthodoxy, orthopraxy and orthopathy all matter…
  6. A bad sermon is a badly presented sermon. No matter how brilliant a sermon may be, if it is so poorly presented that no one listens, it has wasted everyone’s time. The most common problems are that sermons as too soft (occasionally too loud); too slow (occasionally too fast) and too monotonous. They are sometimes too intense (over time, unbroken intensity leads to insensitivity to the genuinely serious), too laid back (if even the preacher doesn’t care why would anyone else) and might be too flippant, might assume and presume, might insult due to insensitivity and… well you can add some more.
  7. A bad sermon leaves you thinking about the preacher rather than about Jesus. Even if a sermon has amused us no end, if a week later all we are doing is chuckling over the preachers antics, and our thoughts don’t really ever turn to Jesus, something is amiss. Don’t mishear me – humour is a great thing and a wonderful asset in preaching. Was it Haddon Robinson who said ‘and after the mirthquake, the still small voice’? Well used humour can open us up to the voice of God. But humour must serve the purpose of the message, not the message our goal to become budding comedians.

Well I came up with seven bads more quickly than I would have liked… and sadly I could carry on (bad sermons stifle hope, ignore or misuse the Bible, allow the preacher to vent their anger on the congregation, manipulate, make you want to give up, leave you bored to tears, make you embarrassed that you are a Christian – and on and on it goes). But I gave seven signs of a good sermon, and don’t want the negatives to outweigh the positives. And I think that is important, because in the end good preaching does good. And there are lots of good preachers, and I for one, am grateful for them. Hope that you are surrounded by good preachers, and if bad preaching is your usual fare, perhaps find a winsome way to help your preacher find a more God honouring way.

Nice chatting…

3 Comments

  1. I’m tempted to add a note about length, but it’s not a simple factor! Some speakers can hold me for an hour or more ( not too many though) .Some leave me wandering off after 15 minutes. Average attention span these days is pretty short so I suspect that a good point made in about 20 minutes will have a chance of being remembered whereas a rambling trail of sometimes disconnected points will fail very early in the piece. In my context, sharing with folk in their 80’s and over, the constant challenge is to present something helpful inside 10 minutes……and it’s a good discipline!

  2. A very helpful article to help me navigate what to avoid in my preaching journey. Thanks Brian.

  3. Great food for thought

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