Unbelievable Preaching

This article originally appeared in an old blog of mine that no longer exists. The original post has been edited for style and relevance.

Few things are as dishonoring to Christ and His cause as boring sermons. Preaching should be heralding the riches of God’s glory, calling sinners to repentance, and edifying the saints. Instead, it is often the instrument by which God is portrayed as irrelevant, sinners are bored to tears, and the saints are afflicted with habitual clock-watching. This is tragic.

To the average churchgoer, the Sunday sermon is the longest, most dreaded 30 minutes of the week. It has, for many, become an empty formality between waking up Sunday morning and going to Cracker Barrel Sunday afternoon.

Some have attempted to remedy the problem by nearly eliminating the sermon from the church service. A greater emphasis has been placed on entertainment style worship, and many sermons have been shortened in length and shallowed in content to become more palatable to our hyper-distracted society. But the result is not better preaching, but no preaching at all.

Of course, no preacher hits a home run every time he steps to the plate, and we all have those congregants who persistently nap no matter how enthusiastic our delivery style. Sleep deprivation has slain its thousands, and sleep apnea its tens of thousands. But to many sermon sufferers, a sincere and passionate preacher would be a welcome relief.

G. Campbell Morgan told the story of a successful actor named Macready who was approached by a pastor puzzled as to why crowds flocked to hear drama but not sermons. Macready answered, “This is quite simple, I present my fiction as though it were truth; you present your truth as though it were fiction.”

What are we doing that makes our preaching boring? What bad habits have we developed that rob our sermon delivery of passion and sincerity? I have a few observations:

We sound insincere when we use the same words in our public prayers week after week. A heartless prayer prepares the people for a heartless sermon. It gives the impression that the preacher is truly not conversing with God, he’s just going through the motions – and the same will probably hold true with his preaching.

Another bad habit that robs us of passion and sincerity is not making eye contact with our listeners. When we look people in the eye we are conveying the attitude that we mean business – that we are serious about what we are saying. When I am, on occasion, a sermon hearer instead of a sermon giver it always irks me when the preacher won’t look at the crowd. It really is odd that a man would deliver an entire sermon to the clock in the back of the auditorium.

Also, beware of the monotone voice in delivery. And remember, monotone isn’t just a calm drone, it’s any pitch repeated without variation. Even southern “wind-sucking” preachers can be monotone if they never vary from their hollerin’ pitch. Variety is the spice of life, and a variety of voice pitch spices the sermon with a good amount of sincerity and believability.

Even worse than the monotone style is the sermon delivered in a fake, affected voice. Your preaching voice should be an enlargement of your normal voice, not a bad impersonation. I know of an evangelist who persists to preach in a style that is an obvious mimic of one of his preacher-heroes, for when he speaks conversationally his voice and demeanor change completely. When actors act, their drama seems real; when preachers act, their sermons seem fake – so let’s abandon the imitation.

Another sermon delivery style that conveys artificiality is forced alliteration. Can we be honest here? The people that care most for alliteration are preachers. I know we think that it helps our people remember our sermon – and it does help some – but awkward alliteration is counterproductive. Outlines that are the product of forced alliteration sound overly manufactured. 

Preachers like to alliterate because it makes us feel like we wrote a proper outline. Some preachers mistake alliteration for proper exegesis, thinking that the purpose of studying a passage is not so much to unpack its meaning but rather to make all 4 sermon points begin with “B” or end with “-tion”. The most important part of the sermon outline is not the style of the headings, but the substance in between. Be careful not to pound square pegs into round holes.

There’s yet a more egregious practice, one that is the most commonly used and the most difficult to describe. It is the habit of using a misplaced emphasis on the last word of a sentence – a strange sort of “up-tone” on every last word. It’s a speaking style that is never used in conversation but often employed in mindless recitation and vain repetition. Somehow, it found its way into the preaching style of many a pulpiteer. It is a sermon killer, no matter how pristine and professional the outline might be.

It might be helpful to listen to your sermon recordings once in a while, or better yet, watch a video of yourself delivering a sermon. For those who have the constitution for constructive criticism, ask your wife this: “Honey, if there was one thing about how I preach that you could change, what would it be?” If her response is “just one?” then I suggest you brew some coffee to wash down the humble pie.

For a more thorough and eloquent treatment on this subject, I recommend to you Spurgeon’s Lectures to My Students. He has a few helpful chapters regarding sermon delivery and bad pulpit antics.

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