Lousy Preaching and What to Do about It
by Geoff T. Sinibaldo
Read the PDF
from LF Spring 2009
Preaching is the cornerstone of any pastorate, and for many pastors it is the centerpiece of their ministry. For those with little experience, it is a daunting task. Even seasoned veterans can approach preaching with anxiety, given the priority Lutherans place on the proclamation of the word. In preaching pastors are asked to be fluent in Scripture, the local context, and the theology of both our Lutheran heritage and the church catholic. So how do preachers go about it?
I had a classmate in seminary who said, “If we can get them to laugh, we are halfway home.” It is true that humor does aid our hearers in listening, but sometimes I get the feeling that sermons are somehow a time slot to fill rather than an opportunity to engage what God is doing in, with, and under the words of the preacher. So what is it that preachers attempt to accomplish in preaching? Filling time? Telling jokes? Enabling change? Distilling morality and virtue? Maybe preaching is an opportunity to report what we did on summer vacation, get up on a soapbox, or affirm everyone? No.
Preaching conveys the promise of Jesus to those listening. For Lutherans, the articulation of God’s word as both law and gospel is paramount, as God acts in Christ “for you.” As preachers, those who stand in the pulpit are to call their hearers what they are—children of God gone astray—created in God’s goodness and mercy, yet defiant, broken, and self-centered. God’s word does something to us. We are to name our death as an imminent reality. As an equally imminent reality we are to proclaim that judgment day has come in the form of a cross, given on account of Christ “for you.” In preaching, God catches us dead in our tracks and then raises us to new life in Christ (John 11:43).
So often, preachers get confused as to what they have been called to do. The preaching office is an electing office, as Gerhard Forde reminds us. Preaching calls out and names sinners as creatures who have betrayed one another and dishonored God, who deserve nothing but the evil age in which we live along with its consequences, yet who have been redeemed, reconciled, and renewed by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit brings faith to us in these electing words. The preacher’s task is not to recommend holiness for a better life through the art of persuasion, nor is it to administer an extra dose of holiness so that we can do better next time. If the task is to convince sinners to choose Christ as their personal savior, preachers could measure success only when people “get themselves saved” and are never seen again—what a good way to describe poor attendance!
Preaching is not about making people feel better about themselves or about giving them more to do. Rather it is to give them Christ, crucified and risen “for you.” To be a preacher is to sow the seed of God’s word so that it takes root and brings forth new life by faith alone (Matthew 13:1–23). As an intern supervisor, I have watched apprentice preachers find their voice, and over the years I have developed a typology of caricatures to help describe sermons. I find it helpful in discussions with my students to name what kind of sermon we are hearing, whether at the church we serve or at some synod event. I must also admit that, at one point or another, I have preached most of these sermon types at least once. I humbly recant and repent of them, and I pray for a preacher to absolve me in Jesus’ name, “for the letter kills, but the Spirit brings life” (II Corinthians 2:6).
Book Report or Encyclopedia Sermons. Information, insight, research, and knowledge are lifted up as the virtues of faith in these sermons. No stone is left unturned. A major theme of this type of sermon is, “If only we understood, we would be more faithful than we are at present.” There is nothing wrong with adequate research. Preachers should be expected to know their material, including Scripture, very well. There is a difference, however, between description and proclamation. It is the difference between explaining the faith and giving the words of faith. These sermons often miss what God does “for us” and instead ask us to learn how to do better next time.
Contemporary Context Sermons. The classic flaw of human beings is to believe that God’s commands do not pertain to us. These sermons explain away God’s law as irrelevant to our time or setting rather than calling us to repentance and offering the gift of forgiveness announced in Jesus’ name. Preaching is indeed contextual; however, preachers are called in their respective contexts to articulate what God expects from us, name our inability to live up to such standards, and then proclaim Jesus to our hearers.
Wrong Hero Sermons. These sermons are testimonials to human spiritual heroism. They are powerful, often recounting the struggles of faith of either the preacher or of someone else who came to faith. But the journey is misdirected when the person becomes the example of faith rather than announcing faith given in and through Jesus Christ. When I preach, it is true, I use a lot of personal stories. But any preacher who does so must be careful not to end up focusing on personal heroism but instead the opposite, focusing on Christ who gives forgiveness, life, and salvation.
Campfire Sermons. These sermons focus on the power of community. The hearers can imagine themselves sitting around a blazing fire in perfect spiritual bliss, especially if they have ever been camp counselors (and I was one). If we could only hold hands and sing while igniting the spark within us, then everything would be fine. This approach is classic enthusiasm—encouraging the divine within us rather than bringing an external word to those who cannot save themselves; a word that kills and raises up to new life in Christ.
Handbasket Sermons. This type of sermon sounds the theme that the world is going to hell in the proverbial handbasket. If only we could name the perpetrators and ways of heading them off at the pass, we could restore God’s good creation and the relationships intended for us. The handbasket sermon does a fair job of invoking the law but announces it to the wrong crowd. It is finger pointing, name calling, and playing the blame game on others rather than naming the sinfulness in which we all participate. The solution to our problems is not to get rid of all the bad people or reform their evil ways. It is to repent ourselves and receive God’s assuring word of reconciliation.
Advertisement Sermons. Our parishes, synods or districts, agencies, and church-related institutions all have many programs and ministries. These sermons name them and encourage our involvement and participation in them. The focus gets misplaced, however, on ours as the very hands that bring God’s kingdom into our time and place rather than God’s divine election through the Word and our prayer that God’s kingdom may come among us also.
Sneaker Sermons. This type of sermon moves advertisement from describing how a person can get involved to the activity itself. These sermons are about getting our hands and feet to work for God. Just like the commercials for a major brand name sneaker, we are called to “just do” the work of faith. The underlying message is that if only we were more active, God would be pleased with us. It is difficult to convey Christ’s promises to our hearers when “we” are so concerned with what “they” are doing.
Motivational Sermons. These sermons describe multiple steps toward some higher goal. Examples would be: Five Steps to Christian Parenting; How to Evangelize the Workplace; Christian Marriage for Dummies; and other such themes. These sermons aim to be relevant and to spell out what Christian life actually looks like. Unfortunately, they play straight into the question, “What can I get out of it?” These sermons are slick, straightforward, and easy to remember in their enumeration of what the hearers should be doing. They are also almost exclusively law-based preaching. Moreover, it is highly likely that the entire sermon may go by without ever mentioning God, let alone Christ or his work “for you.”
Stewardship Sermons. Too many times stewardship gets equated with doing more, a sign of faithfulness, and other human-centered activities, rather than giving thanks for all that God has given us in our relationships and resources. The Reformation began over a mismanaged stewardship campaign when Luther opposed the sale of indulgences. Are we selling forgiveness or God’s blessing in a similar way today? Is the sign of our commitment kingdom-building or at the very least kingdom maintenance? We are called to proclaim that God is master of all. In stewardship, Christ invites us to “enter the joy of the master” first given to us (Matthew 25:23).
Gimmick Sermons. These sermons often feature some attention-grabbing device like a dramatic presentation or prop to draw people into the message. How many children’s sermons use this method? These sermons seem like cheap party tricks to me. I used to want to get special-effects flash paper for Pentecost to show what a tongue of fire might look like but always thought of it too late to get to the magic shop. Yet somehow my sermons went on just fine year after year without the gimmick—which is exactly my point.
“A Funny Thing Happened to Me on the Way to Church” Sermons. These sermons feature a good, meaningful, entertaining story. Often they are about something that happened to or was observed by the preacher. When done poorly, however, the connection may never be really clear to the listeners. Done well, these sermons act as parables, opening up the truth to deliver Christ to the people. But the question remains, “Are we here to laugh or to proclaim Christ?”
“One Darned Thing after the Next” Sermons. This sermon type links together one story to the next with well-planned transitions leading to the next story, much like the Monty Python sketch comedy film The Meaning of Life. These sermons are entertaining and can captivate people by the storytelling abilities of the preacher. Yet they can also seem disjointed and not present a clear theme or give Christ to the hearers.
Multiple Sides of One Coin Sermons. These sermons present a central theme and then approach it from different angles. The strength of this type is that it ties up the loose ends of a complex topic—which is also its greatest challenge. If the central theme is not clearly stated, this type of sermon becomes very disjointed and hard to follow, thus complicating the proclamation of Christ.
Springboard Sermons This type of sermon takes its name from its use of a biblical text or passage as a springboard to an outside subject. But be warned: leaving the scriptural texts used to set up the sermon to carry another agenda is risky business. These sermons quickly jump into what the preacher really wants to say. I have heard these go well, particularly on saints’ days or special events within parish life that warrant emphasis that particular day, but only when Christ is presented “for you.”
Refrain Sermons These sermons solve the question of transitions or the presentation of a theme by using a refrain—a verse or phrase as a repeated line to reinforce the central point. This strategy can be effective when used once in a while but becomes tiresome when used on a regular basis. This method is sometimes useful to students who struggle to write sermons and deliver them well while keeping the proclamation of Christ central.
“Prophetic” Sermons. The exact meaning of “prophetic” is not always clear in the context of preaching, but is used quite frequently in groups involving church professionals who are supposed to “get it.” It appears to have little to do with the eschaton and more to do with issues of social justice. The “prophetic” sermon has little to do with Christ and more to do with either the preacher’s ferocity or a call for the church to shed its complacency. This type of preaching again raises the question: is preaching about us or about God?
My bias comes from uneasiness that preaching has come only to mean “do more.” Just think of the common expression not to get too “preachy” when asking someone to do something or when laying down the rules for a particular group or individual. The law is clear, and we are to proclaim it. Too often, however, we either neglect it to do as we please or stress only its demands. We are certainly to live out our faith and work out what that means with those under our care, and preaching certainly is an appropriate venue to flesh it out. But the law should never be preached at the expense of or as a replacement for the gospel. Our confession is that Christ alone saves. In light of the chief article, we live as Christ’s disciples by faith alone.
There is always a lot to learn in preaching. I am quite sure that no two preachers construct a sermon the same way. In this way, preaching really is an art, as all those who enter the pulpit paint their strokes on the canvas with the gifts God has given them for the task. Prayer is always useful. Reading and keeping up with the news are also important contributors to the frame of thought. But the greatest exegete in the preacher’s arsenal is the people who are served. The preacher need not go asking for suggestions, but there is something to be said for knowing the people with whom one has been entrusted: their hopes, their fears, their gifts, their foibles, and most of all their faith, which brings the art of proclaiming the law and the gospel to life. The preacher’s task is to put to an end all that is not-Christ, under the condemnation of the law, so that Christ and Christ alone is proclaimed. With great humility preachers must trust the Holy Spirit to create faith by the hearing of the gospel.
So to preachers I say: be strengthened by the same Spirit as you tend to the preaching office. Whatever style or form you use in the art of preaching, the task is the same: “to preach Christ, and him crucified” (I Corinthians 1:23). Be creative. Expand and edit this list. Listen carefully to the preaching you hear, prepare, and deliver, that solus Christus grants to you life and salvation, regardless of the brand of sneakers you are wearing. In great humility pray to God in Luther’s words: “Use me as your instrument—but do not forsake me, for if ever I should be on my own, I would easily wreck it all. Amen.”
Geoff T. Sinibaldo is Pastor at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Old Saybrook, Connecticut.
Subscribe now to enjoy great content like this delivered quarterly to your door!