It’s not Festivus, but I got a lotta problems with you people!
No, not really. But I thought I would share some pet peeves of mine when it comes to preaching, because I think they are shared by others as well. In the end, those of us who preach want to remove any unnecessary barriers between understanding the word, believing the gospel and the people who are listening. As a preacher who regularly sits under preaching too, I’ve experienced some things that I think have helped me develop as a communicator. Maybe they will provide some food for thought for you, as well.
1. Taking too long to get to the text.
For me, there are few things more frustrating in the beginning of a sermon than hearing somebody start with, “Turn to Book of the Bible, chapter X, verse Y,” and then not actually reading what’s there for minutes on end. I’m sitting there with an open Bible in front of me while the preacher goes on for a very long time telling a story, setting a scene, belaboring some point of context, or even introducing the text without getting to the text itself. The longer your introduction goes, it’s not just irritating, it actually inadvertently can communicate that something other than the biblical text is setting the agenda for the sermon. Text-driven preaching shouldn’t need the tugboat of creativity to get going.
2. Scolding the audience.
“I can’t hear you.”
“You can do better than that.”
“Oh, come on; that’s funny.”
Here and there, this kind of talk is fine. As a steady posture of neediness, it’s cloying. Look, as one who preaches regularly, I know there are few things more demoralizing than preaching to people who seem utterly unaffected or otherwise just not with you while you’re pouring your heart out. But remember, you are not preaching primarily for us, but for the Lord. And remember not to make assumptions about what people are doing or not doing while you’re preaching. When I first assumed the pulpit in a New England context, I thought every week people were mad at me. Turns out that’s just how they look. They weren’t mad at all. They were in fact quite enjoying the sermons. I was making an assumption based on my own insecurity and my own unfamiliarity with my congregation. Similarly, remember that the congregation does not exist to babysit your insecurities or help you work out your own anxieties. We are not there to perform for you. So stop insisting we shoulder the narcissistic burden you feel to be liked, enjoyed, or otherwise seen as compelling. It’s not a concert, and you’re not a rock star.
3. Apologizing for not doing well.
You don’t need to let us know you didn’t have a lot of time to prepare. You don’t have to tell us you don’t think it’s going to be a very good sermon. You don’t have to warn us that you didn’t have time to think through your conclusion. All of this will probably be apparent by listening to the sermon, and it just sounds like whining when you dwell on it. When I was in creative writing classes, I had a teacher who called this phenomenon “the ritual apology.” Basically, before any student read their work out loud, they would always give some disclaimer about how they know it’s not really any good, how they hadn’t had enough time to revise it, how it’s not exactly what they wanted to say, etc. Our teacher made us all just say the words “ritual apology,” before we began reading our work to dispense with the formality of rehearsing all of the reasons for our insecurity. And also because these ritual apologies are annoying and don’t really endear most of us to the work. When it comes to ritual apologies as part of sermons, consider also if these aren’t just ways of communicating that you didn’t think the audience was worth putting in the time and effort to avoid these apology-requiring situations! You’re not just telling something about yourself — namely, “I’m not good at sermon prep or preaching” — you’re also telling us something important about us — namely, we’re not worth consistent effort to do your best.
4. Gospely talk with no actual gospel.
This is something I’m noticing more and more among the current iteration of the gospel-centered tribe. Preachers know they need to include gospel content, but they sometimes end up just kind of orbiting the gospel message without actually getting to the gospel message. They may even use the word “gospel” or other words like “grace” and “salvation,” but remember that the gospel message isn’t summed up in the word “gospel.” We must somehow communicate, at bare minimum, the cross and resurrection of Jesus to actually be presenting the gospel (1 Cor. 15:1-4). You can emphasize different notes in that one song. You don’t have to say the same things every time about each component of the gospel message. You can focus on different facets of that message. But to actually communicate the gospel there’s no getting around the proclamation, in some way, of the cross and resurrection.
Similarly, one of my biggest pet peeves, as it should be all of ours:
5. Cameo appearance Jesus.
Only one step up from no Jesus in the sermon at all is the Jesus who shows up only as quotable quote guy, good example guy, or “it’s the end of the sermon so it’s time to make a cameo appearance” guy. The best (and most biblical) preaching preaches Christ from the text. Obviously some texts present more difficulty in doing this than others. But if Jesus is the point of the whole Bible, we must labor intently in preaching Jesus from the Bible. And preaching about Jesus isn’t always preaching Jesus. Certainly preaching a whole Christless sermon at the end of which we have a “oh yeah, let’s not forget Jesus” moment gives the impression that Christ is a kind of addendum, an afterthought to the Bible, and thus to our own lives. But Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega, the author and perfector, the whole point of everything! Can we learn to preach, then, not as if he’s a featured player but as if he’s the star of the show?
If you’re a preacher, I hope you will receive these in the spirit in which they’re given. I know only hearing about deficiencies in our efforts can sometimes feel demoralizing or otherwise discouraging. But consider from the congregation’s perspective the impact of some of these common practices. Help us better get “the sense” (Neh. 8:8) of the text and more clearly see Jesus. With those aims in mind, perhaps these rhetorical wounds will seem like a friend’s faithfulness to you.