In recent months several people at different churches have told me how bored they are by the sermons they hear on Sundays.
Now, if you’re a preacher, “bored” is a term likely to immediately trigger your defence mechanisms. You'll likely want to jump at the comment and eagerly condemn such ungodly attitudes. And yes, when some people say “I find the sermons boring” they mean the sermons fail to entertain them. In this case repentance is required - there are many ways to be entertained but sermons aren’t one of them. No one should expect entertainment when God’s word is preached.
However, this criticism of sermons isn’t always or wholly the fault of the listener. It is also necessary for you, the preacher, to pause and consider whether anything you are doing (or not doing) is contributing to this critique. It is possible that you, not your congregation, are the problem, and perhaps that you, not your congregation, need to repent.
When it comes to sermons, the opposite of boring isn’t “entertaining” or “exciting” or “fun” but engaging. There are things that you can do that can hinder the way that people engage with God's word.
Here are 8 ways a sermon can fail to engage.
- Do I fail to exhibit passion? If you, the preacher, aren't stirred by your sermons subject it is extremely optimistic to think your listeners will be. And no, passion isn’t about personality - it is the fruit of time spent savouring the text and a hunger for others to see its beauty too.
- Do I merely “hover over the text”? John Piper uses this phrase to describe a type of preaching that is characterised by “dealing in generalities about what the text teaches, hovering just above the text, seldom explaining the very words and phrases, and then moving to the real concern by making the crescendo of every sermon a rehearsal of the atonement, and the forgiveness of sins, so that everyone can walk out relieved.” The answer is to treat each text with the detail and attention that it deserves.
- Do I avoid obvious difficulties in the text? Too often in the pre-sermon Bible reading I’ve listened and wondered “what on earth does that mean?!” I’ve eagerly anticipated an explanation of the text, but this verse is either ignored altogether or passed over with a comment such as “we don’t have time to go into this now...”, before slipping back onto more commonly trodden paths. One of the gifts of exegetical preaching is the focus on the text in all of its depth and complexity.
- Am I reluctant to provide concrete application? When a sermon is mainly about what God has done (“Jesus died to forgive you”) with little detail about how to live in response to His spectacular grace, the listener can be forgiven for thinking “it’s fantastic I’m forgiven, but the gospel has no relevance to how I live my life now.” But as Tim Adeney explains in his excellent article Does This Apply to You?, “application is speaking from Scripture about life and godliness. And life and godliness requires lots of details.” This is not only boring, as John Piper explains, it “weaken[s] the seriousness of practical biblical imperatives on how to live the Christian life by inserting the substitutionary atonement at critical moments when the emphasis should be falling on the urgency of obedience, because that’s the urgency of the text.”
- Do I tend to default to the same application? The flip side of not applying the text at all is the equally numbing practice of rolling out the same generalised points of application such as “share the gospel”, “invite a friend to church”, “read the Bible more”, etc. These may be good things but if not used carefully they can easily become lazy fallbacks that receive a lethargic response.
- Am I predictable in my language? Another lazy habit is to say the same things in the same ways. It is difficult to stay awake when wonderful truths are communicated with excruciating predictability. There is more than one way to explain the gospel than “Jesus died on the cross to save you from your sin.” There is more than one way to invite a response from the unbeliever than “Have you put your trust in Jesus?” Sadly, this only prompts the listener to switch off, saying to themselves “yeah, yeah, I’ve heard this before.” Of the preachers I know who speak with fresh and engaging language, reading widely seems to be key.
- Do I aim low? Some congregations may be comprised of a majority of young believers, or even a high percentage of unbelievers. But this usually isn’t the case, and when preaching is regularly directed (intentionally or otherwise) at these audiences, more mature believers tune out. As Tim Keller has both aimed for and illustrated in his preaching, good preaching can serve both the believer and unbeliever without compromising the edification of either audience.
- Do I fail to speak into the challenges of life? The people in the pews (or sitting on their couch watching via Zoom) are besieged by troubles and temptations. Failed aspirations. Uncertain employment. Miserable marriages. Secret shame. Desperate loneliness. Wearying monotony. When these realities aren’t addressed or even acknowledged, listeners may switch off, falsely concluding that God has nothing to say about the complexity of their lives.
God is not boring. The Bible is not boring. Preaching should not be boring.
Of course, no preacher seta out to be boring, but engaging doesn’t happen by accident. While dull and predictable are achieved without effort, engaging requires hard work and a resolution to improve.
So here’s two questions you could ask of some trusted people who sit under your sermons:
- Are my sermons boring?
- How could I get better?
Your efforts to improve will be appreciated by your listeners and will bring glory to God who speaks and the earth shakes (Hebrews 12:26).