THE “NO-GOOD NO-NEWS” GOOD-NEWS SERMON

Stayawake I want to ask the readers of this blog to help me preach more effectively.  So would you leave your comments on these 2 questions:
•    “Why makes a sermon bad?” 
•    “What makes a sermon good?”

Many of us have to admit the truth.  Sermons can be a waste of our time.  Way back in the foggy world of 1971, Henri Nouwen suggested that most sermons suffered from redundancy of the message.  His observation was that people would sit (or sleep) through a message that they had heard “repeated so often and so persistently that it has lost, for the majority of people, even the slightest possibility of evoking any response.” [1]  And it’s true today still.  Many preachers fall into a rut.  50 out of 52 weeks a year- the same delivery, the same outline, the same demeanor, the same call at the end.  “If we say that preaching means announcing the good news,” Nouwen said, “it is important to realize that for most people there is absolutely no news in the sermon.” (32)  In many churches, almost nobody listens to a sermon with the expectation of hearing something they haven’t already heard over and over and over and…  This sort of boring repetition, one in which the congregation can predict the message and get a power nap, creates a sense of senselessness for those who attend. 

More and more, people refuse to sit through the re-runs that are happening every Sunday in their local church.  Fewer and fewer people are willing to sit through another message as if they were watching the same canned-laughter sitcom episode for the 30th time.

So, in your opinion, what makes a bad sermon… and what could make a sermon good?  Preaching is supposed to be an engaging communication of the Good News of Jesus Christ.  What barriers disrupt that purpose?  (What makes a sermon bad?) What components make a message “good” and “news”?  (What makes a sermon good?)

[1] Nouwen, Henri J.M.  Creative Ministry (New York: Doubleday, 1971), 32.
[2] Ibid., 32.

9 Comments

  1. Karen! Thanks for commenting on my site. I’m honored. You and Mark have made such an impact around the world. I pray often for the translation work- as a whole future people will read the Word in their own tongue. Amazing.
    Your comments are so true. A preacher is often tempted to twist a text to suit what they perceive to be the message people need to hear… or twist it so that it will be catchy or provocative. Back in the day, I’ve been guilty of this a couple times myself. Preachers can run dry with creativity after 50 sermons a year, year after year. Perhaps your right… we need to share our preaching and keep it fresh… and authentic.
    I’ve learned that the Bible is pulsating with enough life and provactive material that the preachers job is to pass that on… to help people see the text… to help people taste God’s Word… to eat this book.
    When we get it right, sometimes the text will taste bitter… and sometimes it will be sweeter than honey. Hope you both keep at it!

  2. Chris, excellent comments from an excellent teacher of the Word. You have this great gift of drawing people into the heart matter of the text. You also have a gift of helping people see how alive and real the text is. You don’t force it… you just let your natural creative self lead us into the Word. I love engaging in your teaching because of your good questions, your good insight, and your good faith. Keep keeping it fresh! Thanks for teaching, Chris!

  3. Thanks Andrew. Those are really useful comments about the whole service working towards the goal. Nouwen in his book, Creative Ministry, says that “the task of preaching is to assist in the ongoing struggle of becoming. And this is accomplished primarily by speaking about Jesus Christ, Who lived His life with an increasing willingness to face His own condition and the condition of the world in which He found Himself, in such away that encourages us to follow Him; that is, to live our lives with the same authenticity even if it leads us to tears, sweat, and possibly violent death.” Interesting stuff… I think the whole of the service should aid in this task.

  4. I have preached on occasion and am passionate about understanding and communicating God’s word accurately. I am very concerned that I don’t waste people’s time when I preach. That means the sermon must be relevant, and that goes beyond application. It must engage the listener’s mind, heart and will. One of the best ways to do that is to ask “yes, but….”
    The sermon must be accurate – there have been too many times when listening to a sermon that I say “the passage doesn’t say that!”. Sometimes evangelical doctrine is read into the passage when it’s not there.
    It takes me hours, weeks even, to prepare a message that I think is worthwhile. Maybe we expect too much of preachers to crank out something worthwhile every week.
    My husband is a gifted preacher (it’s not just me that says that). He communicates well because he really knows the Bible (he’s been a Bible translator for over 20 years). His conclusions, at times, have been counter to what has “always been taught”. But he gets it right – because he understands. He asks the questions about life and the Bible that people are asking even when they’re not aware they’re asking them. Because he’s not afraid to take the challenge of asking hard questions, he is relevant.
    Our hermeneutic is foundational to how we understand the Bible. I have seen a lot of inconsistent hermeneutics which leave people confused. They “know” they are supposed to believe what the pastor/Bible says. But they also “know” it doesn’t coincide with reality. That’s where the hard questions have to be asked.
    A bad sermon does more than put people to sleep. It teaches them that the Bible is irrelevant and God doesn’t really get it.
    Preachers have an awesome responsibility – to get it right, to communicate God’s heart, to not waste people’s time. There are some who will come to church because they always have. There are many who will just quit coming because what they hear isn’t worth the time. I know I’ve met some of them.

  5. To be honest, this is a question I’m wrestling with myself. I desire to be a preacher that people look forward to hearing. Many of my personal questions have to do with style and content. Am I easy to listen to? Do I speak in a manner that others can follow? Am I personally a distraction? Do the words coming out of my mouth matter to those listening? Is there something here that will impact their life? How are these words impacting my own life? Is there something here that will be easy to remember?
    While I’m still fuzzy on what makes a good sermon I know when I’m in the middle of a bad one. I begin to question the benefit of a sermon if it begins to fall into one of these categories:
    • Repetitive – I can’t handle repetition. A T.V. show, or movie, has to be amazingly good for me to watch again and again. Sermons are the same way, give me something I haven’t heard before
    • Disengaged – I often find myself asking, “does this matter to life today?”
    • Pharisaic – I want to know that the issues the preacher is speaking on matter to his life too. I don’t want some “Johnnie Above the Law” telling me how to live my life.
    • Guruish – It’s nice hearing a sermon knowing that what you are hearing has been what the preacher is learning. I don’t think I’d like to hear from someone who knows all the answers.
    Does this make sense?
    I just finished hearing a sermon of Rob Bell’s on iTunes. He begins by announcing that his sermon is an hour and ten minutes long and all they were going to do in that service was study the Bible. His announcement was met with cheering. At first I thought he might be kidding. So I listened in to find out how long it was really going to be. Sure enough, 70 minutes later he was concluding in prayer.
    This would not work for every preacher in any context. Rob has something special going on at Mars Hill that can not and should not be repeated in all churches, but perhaps it’s worth a bit of a study.

  6. This might sound weird, but I thought it appropriate to share as it popped into my head just now. I had a class this last semester on Cultural perspectives, basically how should Christian’s view the world, particularly some of the more major issues of today. My prof, in a tangent of his, was discussing God’s calling on Christian life and how the Christian response involves the heart, soul, mind and strength. He made the comment that while he is at church he tries to remember this specifically, because he is a philosopher and inclined to thinking, so he can keep his mind on target, being God. It hit home with me that a service, as a whole, should attempt to reflect or induce all of these aspects of Christian response to God’s calling. For worship time, understanding and thinking through the lyrics then becomes important as people engage the mind, but the heart has to feel the presence and moving of God as he touches the sould and this heightened awareness can be expressed or engaged by bringing ones body into the worship ‘experience’.
    Just a bit of a reflection but maybe the sermon should be just as actively promoting the Christian response to God’s calling or, as Paul said, application. I do not know how you would do this though, thats for you Ken!:)

  7. Thanks Andrew and Paul! Good stuff here. I hear you both implying that the preacher needs to be a good listener… someone who is relationally aware of what’s happening in the life of those to whom he/she preaches. This makes depth, application, creativity, relevancy, connection all the more possible.
    Other ideas, guys? Or anyone else out there? Feel free to make long or short comments!

  8. application…that’s what preaching is about. period. if there is nothing to apply, and only increased informative brain exercising, then it is teaching, not preaching. preaching comes from the heart and is connected to the audience…based out of a loving relationship which urges and compells people to consider the good news for their lives.
    quite simply, if people actually began to apply loving God and others more in their lives, then they wouldn’t need a “fix” on a sunday morning…preaching may just take on another role within the church and a whole new role in our lives in relationship to our neighbors and co-workers.
    if preaching does not change us, then it wasn’t necessarily the preacher than it was the listener. i cannot preach someone into change but rather challenge and encourage them to take faith steps toward obeying Jesus more fully today than yesterday.

  9. Recognizing that I am not a pastor and have no experience with sermonizing, I have a few things I could point out about sermons, I think.
    I hate it when the pastors tend to dumb down their sermons for the average person. There is no average person if everyone has heard it before and is bored out of their minds by the same message. The worst ones come on Easter and Christmas, as much as I hate to say it becasue people tend to say the same things every year. More than the same things, there is nothing really to engage in of those sermons unless it is crying in your pew, which I can only handle so many times a year.
    I love to see some creativity in the sermons. Pastor Dave did a couple of sermons more as a story. He dressed up and acted out the part of different characters in or surrounding the story almost like he was there and tried to get us into the minds of the people who would have been present for the events. I found those sermons quite attractive and attention grabbing.
    I am also not a big fan of sermons that have to be tailored to the congregation. When someone speaks with the notion that there will be people in the audience who wont like to hear certain parts of the message and therefore leave them out, I find it redundant because the message scrapes the very top of the barrel and does not delve into the depth of the ideas. There is honestly no challenge within those messages because they are so surfacelevel that people tend to just pass them off as another message.
    That leads to the last thing. Sermons are good when they say something worth remembering. I would assume preachers would try to say only things worth people’s time to listen to, but I am not sure that is always true. This sort of sums up all of the previous points I suppose, but whatever. IF people know it, remind them, but dont rehash the point again. Go deeper and inform the people of the importance of the passage and what it says that is applicable for life change. If it is important to life change, it will be important to remember.
    Finally I Think it would be great if there was a little time given over to allowing people to talk in a group about how the sermon was, what they got from it, what they plan to do with it, etc. A little discussion never hurt anyone.

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