“Winning never feels as good as losing feels lousy,” said Pat Riley, the former NBA coach. Likewise, preaching a great sermon never feels as good as preaching a bad sermon feels lousy. My worst attempts at preaching have given me far more pain than my successes have brought me joy, and here are some of the factors that contribute to a homiletical flop:
Why does a flop hurt so much?
One study found that experiencing failure (compared to success) makes people experience unrelated physical pain more intensely, and that failure even reduces your ability to tolerate physical pain.[i] Other research found that emotional pain sticks with us longer than physical pain, meaning that you have an easier time replaying emotional pain that remembering physical pain.[ii]
Failure hurts. Even the most thick-skinned, self-confident pastor can be rattled by delivering a lemon in the pulpit.
Did they heckle you?
In the first church I served as lead pastor I had people in the congregation who heckled me while I preached (next time you have a bad Sunday just tell yourself, “At least they didn’t heckle me”). Jesus said, “We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn” (Matthew 11:17, NIV), and sometimes no matter how great the sermon is, a congregation just will not respond appropriately.
Preachers ought to examine themselves first, but there are times when this is the case. If they heckled you, or if their hearts were hard, then maybe it’s a good Sunday to kick the dust off your feet, have lunch, and find your favorite couch for taking a well-deserved nap.
Did you get a different response in a different service?
Once this year I was speaking in a church with three services (one service on Saturday night, and two on Sunday morning). When I got in my car after the Saturday night service, I turned to my wife and said, “Well, obviously I need to totally overhaul this message overnight, or figure out something else overnight altogether.” She completely disagreed and said the sermon was great, but the group of people gathered that evening were just not responsive. Eventually she conceded one or two minor tweaks for the morning services, but said, “Don’t you dare change anything else. Watch and see – it will be different tomorrow,” so I reluctantly conceded to my wife because of her persistence. The next morning the response was entirely different, so much different that a man walked up to me after the first service and said, “I’m 50 years old and that’s the first time in my life church has made any sense. Thank you.” I have known many other pastors who have had the same experience. My wife was right (as per usual).
Maybe you don’t get to preach the same sermon in multiple services or multiple locations and therefore don’t get to write off a lackluster response in one service because the next service was more positive, but sometimes a sermon that flops is just a matter of different strokes for different folks.
Were you prepared to preach?
I put hard work and long hours into sermon preparation because I want people to understand scripture in a clear and life-changing way. I also put so much time into preparation because it bothers me so much to preach a sermon that flops. A well-prepared sermon can still bomb, but it is a blessing to both pastor and church when a preacher is adequately prepared. If you did not feel as prepared as you could have been, maybe you could set aside more time to prepare this week, or block out an extra afternoon to prepare this week, and see if a little more preparation makes a difference.
Did you fumble the delivery?
You can have a great sermon prepared, but stumbling in the delivery can overshadow your content. There are many professional athletes who possess extraordinary skill, but struggle to perform in a critical moment of a game. Likewise, having something worthwhile to share is a key to good preaching, but the ability to actually say it is equally critical. If your flop was a problem of delivery, you might find it helpful to spend some time rehearsing your delivery, including your gestures (or lack thereof). Maintaining good volume, while also varying your volume and pitch at appropriate times can go a long way in improving your preaching.
Were you sick, distracted, or otherwise not at your best?
It happens to all of us. You have done everything in your control to be ready to preach well, but something happens beyond your control. Did you:
- wake up with a headache?
- experience technical difficulties?
- have an emergency or other disruption interrupt the service?
- get blindsided by one of those “Pastor, I just need to let you know how much I was hurt by…” conversations right before you had to preach?
If it was beyond your control, then it’s good to be able to adjust and fight through a less-than-ideal situation, but cut yourself some slack.
Did you take a chance on something but it turned out to be a mistake?
Terry Pegula owns my beloved Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres with his wife Kim, and in a 2013 interview he said he told the hockey department, “Make mistakes. I love mistakes. I want to see you make mistakes because the day you’re afraid to make a mistake is the day you stop taking chances.”
I think that’s true for preachers, too. Give yourself permission to make mistakes, and it might just improve your preaching. Sometimes a creative idea or an illustration goes better than you even hoped. Other times, not so much. It’s the preacher’s responsibility to make every effort to separate the good ideas from the bad ahead of time, of course, but if the problem with your sermon was an idea that didn’t pay off, then this is an easy fix. You learned a valuable lesson: don’t waste it (but don’t repeat it, either). As Tim Fargo said, “Analyze your mistakes. You’ve already paid the tuition, you might as well get the lesson.”
Were you clear?
One friend told me recently on a Sunday morning, “I know I’m on the board, but I’m not sure if I’m hitting the nail.” I picked up the habit a few years ago of summarizing my whole sermon in one sentence when I think I’m done working on it. If I can’t preach it in one sentence, I know I’m not ready to say it with 20-30 minutes. If you aren’t sure whether your hitting the nail or not, chances are your congregation won’t even know which nail you’re aiming for in your sermon.
Are you sure it flopped?
A small church near our college campus was without a pastor two years ago, so I went to preach for a Sunday, but it did not seem to go well. They could not have been more disengaged while I spoke, and when the service was over the congregation was cold and aloof. I kept thinking, “Was I really that bad? Guess I won’t be going back there!” A lay leader from that church called the college a few weeks later to see if more people from Houghton could speak at their church, and much to my surprise he asked for me by name, hoping I was available to preach there every Sunday. Go figure. I thought the message had flopped, but apparently I had totally misread the response of the congregation.
Maybe it was fine, or maybe it was neither your best nor your worst. You can’t throw a touchdown on every throw, and some sermons will just be satisfactory, but not particularly memorable. Perhaps it went better than you think.
Can the Holy Spirit still use a flop?
Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, was an ordained minister, and when he was a seminary student he attended a different church each Sunday so that he could hear an assortment of preachers. On one of those Sundays, he heard what he described as the worst sermon he had ever heard in his life. When he looked to his friend that day, however, she was in tears. She told him the sermon had been was exactly what she needed to hear that day. “That’s when I realized,” Rogers said, “that the space between someone doing the best he or she can and someone in need is holy ground. The Holy Spirit had transformed that feeble sermon for her—and as it turned out, for me too.”
Winning never feels as good as losing feels lousy, but we who preach would do well to leave the wins and losses to the Lord. The Holy Spirit can transform a feeble sermon into a timely message for someone.