By Joe McKeever
My friends who read the title will think, “Well! Finally something he knows a little about!”
Every preacher, I imagine, knows about dull sermons. Anyone charged with turning out multiple sermons a week over decades will certainly produce his share of messages that are dead on arrival.
I’m thinking of a Christian writer of past years who turned out book after book and built a reputation as a leader/writer/professor of note. He was off the scene by the time I was thirty, so I never saw him when he was in his prime or I in mine. But, repeatedly, I came away from his writings thinking, “How dull. Why was he considered such a wonder?” My quick answer is that the standards were different in the mid-1900s. Denominational publishing houses turned out books not for their sharp content or even sales figures but for other reasons. In a word, he was “safe.”
Now! The challenge on penning something about dull writings and boring sermons (or vice versa!) is to keep from being dull myself. But, always one for a challenge, let’s see how this goes.
Recipe for articles and sermons that are DOA….
1. Spout platitudes.
Given a choice between a catchy turn of phrase and an old saying you’ve heard a thousand times, go for the latter. Faced with telling either something exciting you saw yesterday or an uninteresting rehashing of something Charles Spurgeon said 150 years ago, Spurgeon wins without a runoff.
Never meet a cliche you don’t like. Pepper your sermons/writings with old bromides, common sayings, and everyday wisdom. Likewise, shun (like the plague?) any expression that would challenge the reader/listener to question his presumptions, analyze his ways, reconsider his beliefs.
Liven up your prose, writer! Spice up your preaching, pastor! How to do this? My suggestion is to spend time with children and teens. Listen to them, then try telling them something they will enjoy. Master that and you have it! (On rereading this, I feel a need to point out I am not suggesting you imitate teens or children. Rather, learn from them.)
2. Ignore the human element.
Forget you are writing to actual people. Give no thought to the fellow sitting before you who could be doing a thousand other things, most of them far more productive than listening to you. This is all about you rhapsodizing on some tiny theme you found of interest. Whether it helps anyone or not is their problem.
Harry Fosdick used to say no one ever comes to church wondering whatever happened to the Jebusites. (He was wrong, of course. We preachers wonder about that stuff. But no normal people do!) People come to church–and they read our articles and buy our books–looking for something to lift them from their sadness or grief or disappointment or frustration. Give them something uplifting, for pete’s sake!
3. Never ever tell a story.
Your congregation (or readers) will perk up and pay attention the moment you say, “The other day while waiting at a train crossing, I saw something amazing….” or “Recently, a friend told me what he did the day his house burned….”
People do love a good story. So, to deaden your sermon/article, to strip it of anything relevant to their lives, you will want to avoid fascinating tales and interesting biographies. Stay with principles and lessons, preachments, teachings, and insights. Give generalities, but not specifics.
Have you ever wondered why people found Jesus’ sermons so endlessly fascinating? It was not just because of the miracles, I guarantee. Obviously, He knew what He was talking about since He had been to Heaven and knew the Father personally. It’s always fun to hear a distant country described by a native. But, also, He was a story-teller. (See Mark 4:34.) Since He had heard every story from the beginning of time–and was a major participant in many of them!–He was the ultimate Master Storyteller.
4. Forget the dark side.
If you are teaching/writing/preaching on, let’s say, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved,” making that wonderful invitation mind-numbingly dull takes some doing but you can pull it off. Spend your time in the meanings of the Greek words “believe” and “saved,” and you’ll soon have the audience snoring. And, if you can work in anything on the verb tenses of “believe” and “shalt be saved,” so much the better. Only two people in your congregation/readership find that kind of detail interesting, making it a perfect recipe for dullness. (If you must bring in such insights from the original languages, do it quickly and move on!)
What we’re calling the “dark side” is the unspoken aspect of the teaching. This involves questions like “Why should they do that?” “What’s keeping people from doing it?” “What happens if they don’t do it?” That is to say, why do some not believe? What happens if they refuse to believe? How would one overcome the negative forces? And such.
God does not hesitate to shine a light on the dark side of issues. Men love darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil. He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust. Unless you repent you shall all likewise perish. God gave them up to a reprobate mind. One reason (of many) we find Scripture endlessly fascinating is it rounds out the picture, never presenting platters of platitudes (sorry!) or plates of verbal pastries (double sorry!), but the Word also gives the sordid side of life, presents its heroes warts and all, and does not shrink from telling of the failures and embarrassments of the best people.The editors of National Enquirer, the Globe, the Star, and other tableaus got the idea first from Holy Writ.
5. Avoid all traces of humor.
Laughter awakens the spirit and stirs the flow of the juices in humans. So, to put your audience to sleep, avoid it at all costs. If you must tell something humorous that fits your message, be sure to dumb it down and sand all the sharp edges off it, remove all elements of surprise, and then apologize for doing humor so poorly.
My young family and I were having lunch in a home following the Sunday morning service. The adult son said, “Brother Joe, settle an argument mother and I are having. I say Jesus used to laugh. And mother says He didn’t.” From the kitchen came his mother’s voice: “Well, the Bible doesn’t say He laughed, pastor.” Without thinking, I blurted out, “Mrs. Laney, the Bible doesn’t say He went to the bathroom either, but He did!” She said, “Brother Joe!” and we all laughed.
Someone has said, “I don’t know whether Jesus laughed or not. But He sure fixed me up so I could!”
6. Shun personal reminiscences.
Pause in your sermon and say, “When I was a child growing up on the farm….” and you have the undivided attention of your audience. At least you will as long as you can hold them. But the second you start boring again, they’re gone.
A half-century ago, pastors would preface their reminiscences with an apology: “Pardon the personal reference.” I would hear that and think, “Are you kidding? That was the most interesting part of your message!”
Most of what I am today–good and bad–has its roots in my childhood. I recall a thousand incidents and influences along the way which all flow together in memory. A teacher who taught me to love to read in the first grade, a teacher who read stories to us in the third and fourth grades, and a teacher who publicly humiliated me in the seventh grade–all are part of my inner makeup. A preacher who laughed in the pulpit when I was a child, a preacher who was born minus a funny bone in my teens, and a preacher who loved life in my young adulthood–they’re here with me, too.So, when I preach, they sometimes make a cameo appearance.
7. Lose sight of the goal.
The purveyor of dullness almost always has as his goal to communicate something he finds interesting. When he gets to the end of his material, he feels satisfied that he has achieved his purpose. He has arrived.
However, to his readers and hearers, he’s only halfway home.
Every sermon–and every article/book–is made up of two parts: What and so what.
The first, “What?” is the teaching material. The “So what?” is the application in which the writer or speaker drives home the behavior he/she is calling for. Without the second, the first is just so much dead material, as fascinating as a operator’s manual for a tractor.
When I stand to preach, if I plan to invite the congregation to fill the altar area for prayer at the conclusion of the sermon, I tell them up front. Somewhere toward the middle of the message, I may say again that in a few minutes “many of us will gather here and pray.” Then, when we move into the public invitation, they’re ready. But the times when I forget to prepare them, if I mention coming to pray only at the conclusion of the sermon, the response is minimal.
Likewise, if we are asking people to give of their wealth to the work of the Lord, everything in the message should point toward that end. If the message is evangelistic and we’re calling people to Christ for salvation, the goal should always be in mind.
Staying focused on what we are asking the hearers/readers to do is all important.
To move an article or sermon from the realm of the dead into the land of the living, then, means just the opposite….
–Speak to people in real situations.
–Tell the occasional story, making sure it is relevant and well-told.
–Tell us why some people refuse to believe this, rebel against such a wonderful teaching, and the price they pay for their refusal.
–Laugh with us. If something funny happened on your way to preach/write this and it fits, we are literally starving to know it.
–Reminisce with us. What happened in your life that caused you to want to write this article or preach this subject?
–Keep in mind what you are asking your hearers/readers to do.
There! That wasn’t so bad, was it? (smiley-face goes here)
Joe McKeever is retired missions director for the New Orleans Baptist Association. Before that Mr. McKeever pastored churches in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and North Carolina.