If you’re a preacher, it’s inevitable that you’ll preach some lousy sermons. It’s not possible to hit a home run every single week.
Hitting Home Runs
Last Sunday I preached a lousy sermon. It felt awful and embarrassing. I was so discouraged on Sunday. Let me tell you the story and offer a few thoughts to help you the next time you preach a lousy sermon.
I just finished preaching a six-week sermon series on Jonah. It was awesome. I felt like I kept hitting home runs, a few grand slams even, through that series. I’ve never felt so much joy in preaching and never seen God use my preaching as much as he did through that series. Our whole church was being gripped by God as we went through this series together. I was in my sweet spot as a preacher. I like being in this spot.
Then, two Sundays ago, we had a guest preacher: Francis Chan. Francis Chan is a great preacher. He did a really good job for us. It was our first Sunday of year two as a church, and our biggest Sunday yet at Garden City.
So, for this last Sunday, I was pumped up to launch a new sermon series on the Gospel of John and capitalize on all the momentum in the church. Preachers, you all know how important it is to nail that first sermon in a new series. It can set the tone for the whole sermon series. Our whole church was also pumped up to begin the new series.
All week long I wrestled and wrestled with the text (John 1:1-18). Honestly, I’ve never had a harder time figuring out how to preach a text. I just couldn’t get my mind and heart around this Prologue to John’s Gospel, I couldn’t find handles. I actually woke up on Sunday morning, trashed the sermon I’d written, and wrote a whole new one.
I got up to preach on Sunday afternoon and it was tough from the start. The microphone kept bugging out. Some babies in the service were loud and were distracting me. And, worst of all, “the click” never happened for me. Normally, sometime during the week as I’m preparing to preach, I feel something click deep inside my heart, I know I’ve heard from God and I have his message to deliver to the people. With how I’m wired, most of the time I find myself crying a few tears when this click happens–my heart just feels so full, I feel at once a deep sense of inadequacy, passion, and excitement to preach. But I never experienced this when preparing for last week. The message wasn’t really in my heart. I’ve vowed to never preach a sermon unless it’s traveled through my gut, but the reality is that when you preach every week, sometimes that doesn’t happen in the way you want it to.
So I slogged through the sermon. Even during the act of preaching I felt drained, like energy was leaving me, when normally I feel increasingly energized while I preach. I love my church and my city so much and I felt like I was giving them a little snack when I wanted to give them a feast.
I finished preaching and walked back to the pews to sit next to my wife. She knew. She squeezed my hand three times (our signal for saying “I-love-you”) and put her hand on my back.
The Gospel for Preachers
I felt terrible. I felt embarrassed. But then our worship leader began to lead us in worship, singing the song, “On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand.” At once I chose to worship, and I sang as loudly as I could the good news:
On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand, NOT, On my preaching performance I stand!
Years ago it would’ve taken me twenty-four hours to get over the discouragement of preaching a lousy sermon. This time it took me about six hours. By Sunday night, after debriefing and laughing with my wife, I felt normal again. Shifting to immediate worship, instead of self-pity, made the turn around much faster. Believing the gospel made the turn around much faster. Laughing about it with my wife made it much faster. My prayer for you and me is that the gospel of God’s grace would get bigger and bigger in our lives. As it does, we will get over our lousy sermons faster and rest in the fact that we stand on a solid rock, not the sinking sand of preaching performance.
God Doesn’t Need Us
And we must always remember that God doesn’t need a good sermon to do his work. I felt my sermon was terrible, not at all up to my standards, but I still preached the text/the gospel, I still got on base. And, God still used the sermon. That’s always amazing to me, to hear that people were still deeply helped by my lousy sermon.
This won’t be the last time this happens. I think God likes to do this, he likes to humble us as preachers. He likes to remind us that he doesn’t need us in order to accomplish his purposes.
Advice In a Nutshell
So, in a nutshell, what’s my advice for us as preachers? Here it is:
-Aim to preach the best sermon you can possibly preach each and every week. Swing for the fences. Aim to hit a home run. Play Big. The privilege of preaching is enormous and worthy of our best efforts. I’ve already transitioned out of my discouragement and I can’t wait to get back in the pulpit and preach my guts out this Sunday.
-Know that lousy sermons are inevitable. They will come. Sometimes they will come when you sort of expect it (like this last Sunday for me), other times they will come when you least expect it. And sometimes they will come when you expect it (like this last Sunday), but least want it (like this last Sunday, a big momentum Sunday for us).
-Remind yourself that you are not what you do. When you preach a lousy sermon that is the best time to remind yourself that you stand on Christ, not the unstable sand of preaching performance. Your identity rests in Christ, not in what you do for Christ. Embrace the way God wants to humble you through the experience of preaching a lousy sermon.
-Learn everything you can from your lousy sermons. In my case from last Sunday, I’ve noted three mistakes I made that I will do my best to not make again (1. Normally my sermons are arrows–they are clear and sharp, but this sermon was disjointed. 2. I tried to do too much in one sermon. 3. I was preaching without “the click” mentioned above). Specifically noting what went wrong is helping me as I prepare for this Sunday.
-Have fun. The preaching life is hard, but it’s also a lot of fun. Don’t get too serious about all this. Take God seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously. Your church and your city needs a preacher who can laugh at himself. If you want to keep at this thing for four or five decades (as I do), you need to pace yourself and make sure you’re having plenty of fun along the way. Lousy sermons are just part of the gig.