Yes, there are such things as bad sermons and sermons that should never be preached.
I’ve preached them, and if you are a preacher, you have preached them, too. They are painful, they put people to sleep, they make people decide church isn’t worth their time (and worse God isn’t worth their time), and they turn people away from the truth.
Now many pastors in an effort to not be accountable for their sermons and/or to not work hard on their sermons love to quote from Isaiah 55:11: “So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” I rest in this verse as all pastors should, but this verse does not say, “Don’t work at your craft, don’t put in effort.”
So here are five ways to guarantee that your next sermon will be awful:
1. Be unprepared. Walk up to the stage, look at your church and have absolutely no idea what you are going to say. Wing it. Make it up as you go along. Be all over the map. Preach someone else’s sermon and see what happens.
Lots of pastors preach when they aren’t prepared. I’m not talking about the text isn’t still convicting you, because that will never stop. I’m talking about, you didn’t prioritize your sermon prep time, so you aren’t prepared. You let your week get away from you and others decided your calendar, so you are working on it Saturday night when you should be asleep.
Apart from someone dying or some other unforeseen catastrophe, my sermon prep time is blocked out and not negotiable. Why? Preaching is the most important part of my job. It is when I have the most influence over the life of my church. When else is everyone in one room, hopefully listening? Never. Preaching isn’t all that I do, but it is the top priority of my week in terms of my role at my church, and yours too if you are the main communicator of your church.
2. Say what you want the Bible to say. This is incredibly common in a lot of sermons and one I have to constantly work against. Often what the Bible says is not as cool as what we want the Bible to say. What we want to say isn’t as piercing, confrontational or invasive as what the Bible says. But no one changes based off what I want to say; they only change through the power of the Spirit working through the text.
This reason is why I started preaching through books of the Bible. I know pastors build their case through the Bible as to why you should preach through books. I do it because I know my heart and tendency is to decide what I want to say, go find a verse that says that or I can make say that, and then preach a sermon. Preaching through books of the Bible prevents that for me.
I know you think people came to hear you preach, and in a way they did, but what they don’t know or maybe can’t verbalize is they showed up at your church to hear from God. You are just the instrument for that.
3. Don’t talk about Jesus, just give good advice. Another way to guarantee a bad sermon is to simply give out good advice and never talk about Jesus. Most would say if you don’t talk about Jesus that isn’t a sermon, just a talk, which I would agree with. But I digress.
Remember #2, they didn’t show up to hear you but to connect with God. They maybe can’t verbalize that, but that’s their heart cry.
4. Don’t have a main point. This is one of the hardest things to do in a sermon, to boil down your sermon to one point. Not three or five, but one. That is all your church will remember if they remember anything. I know we want them to remember all of it, but they forget about 80-90% of what we say, which is incredibly humbling when you think about it.
To make your sermon last longer than Sunday morning, you must think of ways to communicate it in a memorable sentence.
5. Don’t tell anyone what to do. Pastors love to use Isaiah 55:11 to avoid application. The thinking goes like this: Just get up there, read a verse, say what the Bible says and then sit down and let the Holy Spirit bring the application. Nowhere does this verse even allude to this. This is the one that I often struggle with the most, creating clear next steps. Moving from, “The Bible says this,” to, “So in light of that, go and do ________.”
This is the handle people are looking for to apply the sermon. Do we need to spell it out for people? Yes. Some people will get it on their own and may even get a next step from the Holy Spirit you don’t give them, and that is great, but most people are waiting for you to answer the “now what” question. Like #4, if you can’t tell them a next step, the sermon isn’t ready to preach.