How to Listen to a Bad Sermon

Let’s face it, we’ve all endured a preacher’s flop at some point. Perhaps we could echo our friend C.H.’s sentiments. He knew a thing or two about preaching.

“I  heard  one  say  the  other  day  that  a  certain  preacher  had  no  more  gifts  for  the  ministry  than  an  oyster,  and  in  my  own  judgment  this  was  a  slander  on  the  oyster,  for  that  worthy  bivalve  shows  great  discretion  in  his  openings,  and  knows  when  to  close.  If  some  men  were  sentenced  to  hear  their  own  sermons  it  would  be  a  righteous  judgment  upon  them,  and  they  would  soon  cry  out  with  Cain,  ‘My  punishment  is  more  than  I  can  bear.'”

There are days when the grace of the Lord overwhelms the preacher and the text pulses through him as though it were an extension of his soul because, in truth, that is exactly what has happened. And then, there are other days. So, as a responsible hearer how do you find help from a flop?

To start, ask yourself the question, do you truly recognize a bad sermon?
As with every profession that is inherently public, when a preacher does his job well, people sing his praises, and if not, everyone suddenly becomes a homiletics professor taking a grade instead of notes.

You thought this was about your pastor didn’t you? Do you, friend, have the Biblical perception and theological training to really discern a bad sermon?

These are the questions of a mature hearer:

  • Is Scripture explained and applied? Is it the Word that you’re hearing? This judgement necessitates you know the Word. If you don’t, don’t critique those who are trained to. If you’re not hearing the Word, it’s a bad sermon.
  • Is Christ elevated and worshiped? Christ is the main character of every text. Sometimes the greatest antidote to sermon-frustration is to remember that it’s not ultimately you that message was for. Ask yourself not, “did I like that?” but “did I see and hear Jesus?” If not, it’s a bad sermon.
  • Is Scripture made livable? You’ve been told the truth, and that truth demands activity. Does the preacher give activity to the theology? If not, it’s a bad sermon.

Beyond that, preaching is not very difficult to define. Please, for Christ’s sake and His church, don’t think you’re expert on preaching because you have an opinion, and make sure everyone except your preacher knows it.

Here are some questions of an immature hearer:

  • Did I like that? Sorry, but that doesn’t matter (perhaps you know of a text that disagrees with me). Literally every preacher in Scripture (Jesus included, and he was pretty good) faced dislike.
  • Was he interesting? It’s not about him. If he explained Scripture and you were disinterested, that’s more of a concern than a dry expositor. Perhaps you should ask if you like the food, more so than how it was prepared.
  • Do I agree with him?  Disclaimer: on issues that aren’t doctrinal. Again, sorry, but that doesn’t matter if truth is preached. Take Paul’s exhortation and don’t get caught up in futile controversies (2 Tim. 2:23). There are fine points and tensions in Scripture, but focus yourself upon the central theology of the Word, Jesus.
  • Does he have the style I like? Ok, can we stop talking about what we like? It’s not about us, it has never been, and it will never be. Some men have progressed in their ability to make the food appetizing, but that’s never an excuse to reject the food.

Be gracious. Let your preacher grow and improve. It’s the hardest job in the world, don’t make it harder. Your pastor stands before the souls of men and speaks the words of the God who holds the universe He spoke into existence. It’s hard. Your pastor is a fleshly man trying to unfold the perfect words of life, from the mind of the Source of life. It’s hard.

Don’t listen selfishly. If we listen to preaching selfishly, we likely do many other Christian things selfishly. Be a gracious and mature hearer, and you might just find that you hear fewer flops.


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