October 23, 2017

What’s Wrong With The Sermon? II: It’s Boring

entertain.jpgIn an entertainment addicted, spiritually depraved culture, the Christian message will never escape the charge of being boring, so preachers should tell God’s story clearly, creatively and persuasively, but without trading the Gospel for the applause of an audience.

Today’s criticism:2. The sermon is boring.

What did we do before the word boring was invented? It must have been tough.

One of the ironies of the study of preaching is that I’m pretty sure most of the great preachers of history would have been boring to the vast majority of people who ever happened to hear them.

Take Jonathan Edwards, for example. Edwards is a darling of theological type preachers, and a fan of Edwards like John Piper can wax rapturous about Edwards’ sermons, but I’ve read enough Edwards to safely say that, for the vast majority of the time, he would have bored the socks right off of any reasonable audience. I don’t think those “great awakening” stories of people falling out of their pews in writhing anxiety were the normal fare at Edwards’ church. The guy could split hairs to the point most people would have been begging for the words, “…and in closing” to arrive.

Or Martyn-Lloyd Jones, the great Welsh expositor of the mid-twentieth century. The Doctor was a relentless plodder in the pulpit, with a kind of dogged, warrior’s determination to wrestle every text to the level of application. Hearers like J.I. Packer were enthralled by Lloyd-Jones, but I would never put a Lloyd-Jones tape in the car player after a big meal. He’s put me down many times.

I preach to teenagers mostly. I work really hard at holding the attention of my primary audience, and I’m known for being able to keep the students’ attention for longer than anyone here. I can be funny, and I use my knowledge of my audience to make sure my sermons are well-seasoned with attention grabbers. Of course, that doesn’t stop the vast number of kids who sleep through everything I say from catching a 20 minute nap under my influence. I’m a sure cure for insomnia for a good sized portion of my audience. In other words, no matter how hard I try, I’m boring to many people. (And yes, preacher, so are you. Quit grinning.)

Today’s preachers are more afraid of boredom than of terrorism or disease. Preachers like Ed Young will bring tanks and tigers into church rather than preach another boring sermon. From object lessons to magic tricks to video clips to background music and slides, today’s preachers would rather hear any criticism before “it was boring.”

Other preachers, however, seem to have accepted the fact that boredom is a quality of this culture’s addiction to entertainment. Television has made us a culture with viciously short attention spans, and we assess almost everything by its ability to create an “instant” sensation or reaction. MTV made us into people who needed a new camera angle every 3 seconds. While many churches have decided to fight the battle to hold the attention of an ADD audience, other preachers have opted out of the competition.

I believe it is an inherent flaw in our consideration of Christianity to say that the Gospel will always appeal to the interests and concerns of any person in a culture. A culture that is literate, that has a concept of God and takes a theistic worldview seriously, will certainly find the Gospel much more interesting than a culture that is addicted to Entertainment Tonight and Oprah Winfrey. The Gospel speaks to us in Biblical language and concepts because the truth of the Gospel is conserved and communicated in those concepts in a way they are not conserved in other forms. If relevance and interest are purchased at the expense of laundering the Gospel for the coinage of entertainment, we’ve made a deadly and critical error.

In fact, a far superior approach to preaching insists that we not seek to be entertaining, but that we speak about the Gospel in the same way the Bible speaks to us. At this fundamental level, we must answer the question, “Is the truth of the Gospel true, whether it is entertaining or not?” The answer to this question is the difference between good preaching and mediocre entertainment.

Last year, a preacher did a series of sermons in our chapel using clips from Remember the Titans. In three of the four messages, the Bible was only referenced very briefly, and in ways irrelevant to the message of the Biblical passages. Instead, both the messages and the content were taken from the film. Of course, our students loved this approach, and said the sermons were excellent. They were, in fact, completely sub-Christian, and dealt only tangentially with the Gospel.

The messages were successful because they did two things: First, they appealed to the priority of visual entertainment media in the audience (IOWs, almost nothing on film is judged to be boring,) and second, they engaged the audience in issues that interested them, unrelated to the basic categories of the Gospel; categories that the unregenerate generally avoid if possible.

I discussed these messages with my fellow preachers on campus. I suggested that while the speaker would feel good about the entertainment of the students and the resultant compliments, he utterly failed to present the Gospel. The error was simple: In abandoning the Biblical narrative, he abandoned the Biblical message. If he cared about the message, and not just the medium, he utterly failed in his task, despite the popularity of the sermons.

Would it have been possible for the preacher to preach the Gospel AND use the clips from Remember the Titans? This is another question for another essay. At this point my answer would be “Yes, with a collection of exceptions and footnotes.” My basic concern is still the same: When we leave the Biblical narrative and material, we usually stop talking about the Gospel.

Now I can hear objections to this right and left. Why must a preacher retell the story of the prodigal son when he/she could use scenes from television and movies to tell the story in many different ways? I agree that creative retellings have the potential to contribute to good preaching and understanding of Biblical texts, but slow down for a moment and remember: The stories are not the same.

“Oh…but the message is the same.” Really? I agree that the message may be similar, but the message of the prodigal son is unique, and fidelity to that story is the key to the message. Departure from the Biblical material runs the essential risk of departing from the Biblical message.

I am not against “entertaining” sermons. I simply believe we are called to tell, retell, proclaim, teach, apply, communally live and missionalize the Biblical story and the Gospel message. For that reason, I think we should accept the constraints of preaching scripture as scripture, and accept that the primary story and message we present is the Biblical one.

Let me be careful to say that I have no issue with any illustration that illuminates the Biblical story. Illumination, however, is one thing. Obscuring, relativizing, shrinking and distorting are other things; things to be avoided.

Therefore, I believe we must embrace two affirmations: First, that the Biblical story is going to be boring to those who are not spiritually enlivened to its truth. This is expected. It is a given. Second, as proclaimers of the Gospel, we should use legitimate measures and means to make message as interesting as possible without obscuring either the Biblical message or rejecting the Biblical method.

In other words, while the Gospel isn’t entertainment, a boring preacher is probably a lazy preacher or a stubborn preacher. It may be unavoidable to bore the audience in some measure, but it is not something that should be accepted without doing all we can to make what we do say clear, urgent, genuine, personal and real. Work at not being boring, but don’t go off the deep end trying to avoid it.

Here are my suggestions for good preaching that isn’t unnecessarily boring.

1. Good illustrations are golden. Ravi Zacharias can talk over the head of 98% of his audience, and then put them in his pocket with the right illustration. I believe this is worth imitating. Work as hard at illustration as possible.

2. If you are preaching to the same audience on a regular basis, try to build up a basic understanding of the Gospel that will allow you to say more and more with each message. If you are privileged to preach to the same people for years, you should be able to avoid much that is boring by having basic concepts well defined, explained and illustrated.

3. The entertainment culture in which we live cannot become the standard for what is good preaching. Jesus was a master communicator, but he didn’t try to outdo the theater productions at Sepphoris. In the same way, we should refuse to compete with the secular entertainment media for the attention of people. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” “If they refuse to hear you, shake the dust off your feet and move on.” These are the words of Jesus.

4. Many sermons are boring because the preacher is doing exegesis or theological debate in the pulpit. We are announcing the good news of a new king and a gracious offer of salvation and inclusion in his Kingdom. We are not parsing verbs or answering the 28 objections to predestination in a scholarly review.

5. Sermons that are too long are usually boring. 20-25 minute messages may be a lot of things, but they are seldom boring simply by duration. The better organized, the more flow in content, the less boring.

6. Interest in a message is generally a matter of relevant, personal application. We need the quality of being able to speak to hearts and minds in the depths, and not to just scratch the itch of superficial entertainment interests. Work at application. Use personal questions. Be appropriate in dealing with life issues.

7. Some of my most “non-boring” sermons were messages were I came at something everyone was interested in, talking about in the introduction, and then used that as the door or jump point into the Biblical material. This is a skill that requires an awareness of how media, news stories, television, trends, etc., can be pressed into the service of the Gospel.

For example, “Remember the Titans” was used in our chapel for trite lessons about self-esteem. I see in those same clips the dilemma of reconciliation and the danger of idolatry. I see it as an intro to Paul’s material about the “new man/new community” in Christ. Mark Dever is excellent at this approach. Listen to Dever get the attention of his audience in an extended introduction, then move to the Biblical text as a parallel, and on to the message of the Gospel.

8. Are you excited by the Gospel? Or you enthused by its power? Are you excited by its relevance? Is the outrage of the Gospel alive in your preaching? Read Robert Capon! Read people who keep the “live wire” of the Gospel charged up in your own heart. Don’t be afraid to create interest by letting the Gospel be what it is: an offense and a stumbling block to those who want justification by morality and decency.

9. There is great drama, comedy and reality in scripture. Our job is to find it. Even in Paul’s letters, there is real life behind the scenes, and in that real life there are possibilities for preaching. When we deal with a text, we may be the ones who are bored as we read. No wonder others are bored. Find what is exciting about the epistles or the rest of scripture. Where is the conflict? Where is the struggle? The drama? The battle? It is there.

10. One of the finest books on worship anywhere is Michael Horton’s A Better Way. Horton helps us to see the drama that should be inherently present in properly ordered liturgical worship. If the worship service is a drama, a covenant renewal service between God and his people, then what is the sermon? The sermon is God speaking the Gospel to his people, preparing them for the Lord’s Supper.

Venturing into the question “Is worship boring?” is a Pandora’s box of its own. But Horton’s point is well made: If worship itself is meant to be a dramatic reenactment of the Bible’s message, then the sermon should not be less than a most significant communication. Perhaps part of the problem is our own devaluing of the sermon down to the level of human entertainment, and not remembering that it is an announcement of a divine word.

God-centered, liturgical worship has proven, though not immune at least highly resistant to the pressure to become entertainment oriented. I believe that the sermon, when it is part of worship that is, in itself, dramatic and serious, will become what it should be: Good News of a great joy for all people.

Revivalism is inherently flawed as a model for worship- and preaching- because of its assumption that whatever grabs interest will result in public professions of faith. So a dog and pony show can get people down the aisle, and therefore the dog and the pony are superior to a sermon that announces the message of the Bible. This is a dangerous model, to be rejected without guilt.

We live in a culture that finds everything boring eventually. The Gospel is timeless, not entertaining. It is true, not trendy. It has depth, not just overnight ratings. It is God’s word to all of us, told in the story of Jesus. While sermons will always be boring to someone, we dare not find that God has been bored with our attempts to become entertainers rather than heralds and proclaimers.

Comments

  1. I think one problem is the lack of enthusiasm ….

    Take Jonathon Edwards … as dry as his sermons are to read, if you heard them preached with fire and passion it might be quite different.

    That was also behind a lot of Billy Graham’s appeal …. people could tell that Billy was passionate about his message … God was real to him … and he was on fire with the gospel.

    Even the best put-together and theologically correct sermon will not be interesting to the average person unless it is delivered with real passion.

    I think our young people have a good ‘nose’ for words without the reality behind them…. here in OZ a common thing to hear about Christians is “Oh, they don’t walk the talk!”

    That is why I enjoy your blog … I hear the passion in what you say … it matters.

    joy!

  2. I found it interesting that you moved from “The sermon is boring” to “The Gospel is boring” simply by starting a new paragraph. It is very possible that a sermon can be boring and can make the Gospel appear boring, but that is not the same as the Gospel itself being boring. Maybe this is where a bit of the “postmodern” piece of me comes through, but I’d much rather sit down and talk through a passage of Scripture with a group of knowledgeable people than listen to one person stand behind a pulpit and tell me about a passage. The interaction of people is what brings the words on a page to life (whether Scripture or any other book). Many (most?) of Jesus’ sermons were not of the “Ya’ll sit down and listen to me talk” variety, but of a response to a question from the group of people around him. Very few of them take even 20 minutes to read, much less the 45 minutes that my pastor has on any given Sunday morning. The Message came alive because Jesus was interacting with people and developing relationship with them. Our typical Sunday morning sermon is not set up for relationship. Then throw in the “Video” churches, where a sermon is piped in from Willow Creek or some other outside source, and “relationship” comes to a complete halt. How can the audience have a relationship with a video screen? At least when I hear my pastor preach, I know him well enough to have some background on his sermons (as you imply with point #2.

    Having said all that, I do think that we need to listen to any message with Spiritual ears. We should be listening to hear God speak, first and foremost, even if the speaker is as dry as the bones in Ezekiel.

  3. Cataract surgery last year seems to have improved my preaching, as it has become harder to read my notes and look at the congregation. I’ve been forced to speak without looking at the notes, and didn’t realise how tied to my notes I had previously been, till this happened.

    [Yes, I can see much better now *from a distance* but close up thins are quite blurry without glasses.]

  4. radioalarm says:

    Edwards gave his sermons intentionally dry so as not to provoke an emotional response; rather, he wanted the Gospel to do the work and have its full effect on people.

  5. Histrion (Jay H) says:

    Someone will probably label me a blasphemer for this, but I think people would enjoy Jesus’s parables a lot more if they didn’t subconsciously hear them spoken in that sort of ultra-noble, ultra-dry “Jesus of Nazareth” voice.

    Ever notice the great contributions of Jewish people to modern comedy? Imagine some of Jesus’s parables with a delivery style like Jerry Seinfeld’s.

    “I mean, what do you think? Guy’s got two sons. He goes to the first and said, ‘Hey, Benjamin, go make yourself useful, will ya? The vineyard needs work.’ And Bobby says, ‘Hey, love to, but you know, Phineas and I are goin’ out for quail. Can it wait until tomorrow?’ And then later on, Phineas is stoned out of his mind and Benjy’s eaten too much — as usual — and he thinks, ‘You know, working in the vineyard sounds awfully good right now. Take my mind off the acid reflux.’ And off he goes. Meanwhile the father’s gone to his other son and said, ‘Hey, Reuben, your no-goodnik brother refuses to tend the vines. Make your old man happy, will ya?’ And Reuben goes, ‘I’ll get right on that,’ and then he goes to his room and falls asleep. So, you know, who do you think Dad’s happier with right now?”

    OK, so pardon my bad attempt at writing Seinfeld-style, but you get the idea.

  6. Excellent post, iM. “A Better Way” by Horton is probably in my all-time top 5 books. Great, great book, especially the last chapter.

    You capture the critical point with: Therefore, I believe we must embrace two affirmations: First, that the Biblical story is going to be boring to those who are not spiritually enlivened to its truth. This is expected. It is a given. Second, as proclaimers of the Gospel, we should use legitimate measures and means to make message as interesting as possible without obscuring either the Biblical message or rejecting the Biblical method.

    Good work.