How To Listen To A Bad Sermon

Listening to a bad sermon is like eating crab legs. It’s a lot more trouble than it should be, but you can still get a lot of meat if you are diligent.

So how do you do it?

Here are some tips that I sometimes find helpful, in order of preference. I don’t want to make you too excited: nothing is going to make a bad sermon good. But these might help mitigate your suffering.

  1. Be merciful. Preaching consistently good sermons is a lot harder than it seems. Think about your worst day on the job and how you would like your coworkers and customers to respond with compassion and understanding. Now extend that same compassion to the preacher.
  2. Overlook the stupid stuff. Every once in a while even solid and reliable preachers will say something that’s completely ridiculous — usually when they venture outside their area of expertise. This is particularly true when preachers begin using stories to illustrate a point they are trying to make. It can really throw you for a loop. Tune it out the same way you tune out that one cousin at family reunions. Even your favorite book has some boring passages, but you judge the book on its highlights. Judge sermons likewise.
  3. Be randomly inspired. I learned this from Dary Northrop in a seminar: you should bring a notebook to sermons not because of how insightful and magnificent the preacher is going to be, but because the Holy Spirit will spark new and amazing insights in you which are only tangentially related to what is in the speaker’s notes. Few sermons are so bad that there is no goodness in them — even a three-year-old will say something profound and/or hilarious if you listen to them long enough. So wait for a clever turn of phrase, an obscure or unexpected Bible reference, or a fact that you were hitherto unaware of and begin writing furiously. Doodle as well. Repeat as necessary.
  4. Pretend it’s opposites day. don t look now free download

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    had a tradition in his Chi Alpha ministry. Once a year he would preach opposite: “Why You Should Not Pray”, “Why God Is Untrustworthy”, etc. He did it deadpan (well — as deadpan as Harlow ever gets). The first time he did it he was worried his students wouldn’t catch on that he was merely exaggerating and then repeating their own doubts back to them in order to demonstrate how ridiculous their doubts were, but it was a huge success. Even the guests got it. It became an institution. Ever since he told me that story, I gamely pretend that a really bad sermon is merely the results of “opposites day”.

  5. Improve the sermon.

    This is risky because it can lead to pride and also can be disruptive if people around you notice what you’re doing, but there are times when it’s your only possible psychological defense. There are two fundamental kinds of badness. There’s bad delivery. That’s the best kind. The preacher has good things to say, but the inability to say them well. The whole sermon can be spent fruitfully paraphrasing and improving the solid content of the sermon. For example, you might reorder and reword the outline for greater impact or logical flow. There’s bad content. The preacher is distorting the text or not thinking things through. That’s harder, but can be even more diverting. You can compose your own outline from scratch on the same passage or topic that the preacher is endeavoring to address. One or two of my best sermons has come about this way.

Finally, my apologies to those who have had to endure a stinker from me. I know it has happened before and have no doubt it will happen again. It’s my job to be the best speaker I can be and it is your job to be the best listener that you can be. I’ll do my job whether or not you do yours, but if we work together this whole thing will go much more smoothly.

And a note to my pastor — relax, this was not inspired by your sermon this week. You didn’t even preach. We watched a movie, remember? 🙂

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