How Preachers Can Stay Out of Boringland

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“Then an expert in the law stood up to test Him, saying, ‘Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’” (Luke 10:25)

Holly, a 7-year-old in a church I pastored, turned to her mother in the middle of my sermon and said, “Mother, why does Doctor Joe think we need this information?”

Every preacher should have such a child listening to every sermon and giving such feedback.

What boring preaching does–without exception–is answer questions which no one is asking.

It may do more things than this–dead oratory violates a thousand sound principles–but put it down in huge letters, pastor: the sermon which is sedating your congregation is seen as completely irrelevant to them.

Whether it is or not is another matter.

My job as the pastor may mean making my audience see that this subject is one they should be dealing with and asking questions about.

On an airline flight, passengers ignore the instructions of the attendant as she talks about the use of the seat cushion as flotation device or how to inflate the life vests. If however, at 30,000 feet the pilot announces the loss of an engine and the attendant begins to give instructions, she will have the clear and undivided attention of her audience.

One reason for the pastor previewing the sermon with his spouse and/or children is that invariably one among them can be counted on to ask, “What is your point?”  “What is this about?”  Or, as Holly put it, “Why do we need to know this?”

In Scripture, we get the impression that Jesus’ best preaching was done on the spur of the moment as a result of questions.

–“Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29) From this, we have the unforgettable story of the good Samaritan.

–“Why do you receive sinners and eat with them?” (Luke 15:1ff) This charge gave the Lord an audience for His parables of the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost boy (Prodigal Son).

–“Lord, will you now restore the kingdom to Israel? What will be the sign of your coming and of the end?” (Matthew 24:1ff.) As a result of these questions, we have lengthy explanations as to the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the Lord’s return.

–“Why do your disciples not fast?” (Matthew 9:14) This gave us the teachings of new-patches-on-old-garments and new-wine-in-old-wineskins.

The inimitable Harry Emerson Fosdick would tell preachers, “No one comes to church wondering whatever happened to the Jebusites.”  Historical ramblings–even if true–can deaden a sermon quicker than anything.

It’s a rare church member who can endure more than a few minutes of historical background to a text.  (I speak as a history major who loves, loves, loves the subject.)

TIME magazine for September 15, 2014 carried an unforgettable cover. “The Answers Issue” blares out the theme, with “everything you never knew you needed to know.” (I’m well aware this is being written a full decade after that date, but the point is still the same.)

Some of the questions posed on the front page include: When will we go to Mars? How often do we blink? Are American families shrinking? How many photos will we take this year? Which U.S. city has the most bars? Where should we sit to catch a foul ball? Why don’t we get heart cancer? Which city has the most billionaires?  Where is the safest place to live? When will Congress reach gender parity? What should I read this Fall? What are the odds we have the same birthday?

The magazine admits no one is asking these questions.

And yet, we eagerly dive into such articles.  Why?

We enjoy them because we are curious, they are interesting and well-written, and–do not miss this–they are brief.

No one is bringing a 30 minute message on “What color is the most patriotic?” or “When did we start saying Groovy?” (two of the offerings)  If they did try that, you can bet no one would be in the audience to hear the conclusion.

What question am I answering in this sermon?

Ask yourself that, pastor. Ask it repeatedly throughout your preparation of the message. Ask it during the rehearsal preaching.

If you do not know or cannot remember, take as a matter of fact that you have ventured into Boringland and may lose your audience. Your choices are to change the subject, sharpen your approach, or convince your hearers that this subject matters.

TIME editor Nancy Gibbs said, “(Today’s) abundance of data, the effervescence of sources and ease of delivery, makes so many more questions answerable while at the same time making it very easy to get lost.”

I’ve done that.  It’s so easy to get buried under all our research on a subject, all the information we have compiled, the mountain of scriptures on that issue, and the illustrations we have pulled together.

We preachers are indebted to Professor Haddon Robinson for insisting that we ask “What’s the big idea?” about our sermon. One Big Idea.

Take for example, this article.

It’s being written for our blog. The blog is devoted to pastors and other church leaders.  And, we may assume that if it meets a need or addresses a subject of interest to preachers it will be picked up and given wide distribution by one of the online preacher magazines (sermoncentral.com, churchleaders.com, crosswalk, etc.).

So, what question does this article deal with?  Answer: What makes sermons boring?

Is that a subject pastors struggle with?  Answer:  This preacher struggled with it from day one (which would be November of 1962) and continues to do so all these years later.

A principle which guides much of the writing for this website is this: If the subject is of interest to me as a minister, other preachers will probably find it addressing their concerns also.

TIME writer Michael Grunwald writes, “Today, the smartphone in your pocket gives you easy access to billions of times as much information as was held in all the libraries on earth in Seneca’s day.”  Earlier, he had quoted that Roman philosopher who worried about information overload over 2,000 years ago.  Grunwald says Seneca and a worrier of the 17th century whom he cites as “now seem(ing) like whiners, drowning facedown in puddles of information.”

One evening I watched historian Doris Kearns Goodwin on C-Span discussing her book The Bully Pulpit, which deals with Theodore Roosevelt. Her interviewer asked about her writing methodology. “Do you gather all your research and then write? Or do you research and write, do more research and write, and so forth?”

This Pulitzer Prize winning writer quoted a mentor of hers, Barbara Tuchman, who said the only way to do this is to research a while, then stop and write a while, research a while, then write some more. “If you don’t, if you wait until you have done all the research, you are swamped by information and have no idea where to begin.”

I imagine the most effective preachers do the same thing.

No preacher will want to include in the sermon all the research he has done, all the background information he has dug up, and all the scriptures that apply to a subject.  That would be like backing a dumptruck up to the homes of members and unloading all the raw, unrefined (undigested, unthought-through, unorganized, etc) data for them to deal with.

The TIME editor says approximately 106.5 meeting hours were devoted (by the writers and editors) to that issue, that one baby was born to the staff during the creation of this package, and that 0.73 is “the average number of seconds it took to print and bind this copy of TIME.”

Interesting? It is to some. (I love it.) But–and this is the point–it’s basically useless information.

Just because something is of interest to the preacher does not earn it a place in the sermon.

Novelist Elmore Leonard used to say one element in the success of his books was that he took out all the boring parts of people’s stories.

A movie director said his films are like life with all the boring parts removed.

I am not saying that if a certain part of a sermon is hard to follow and if some in the audience find it boring that the preacher should cut it out.  Background and context may be difficult to explain, but are often necessary.

What I am saying is: Find out how to keep it easy to follow if you can.  Keep it short, as much as possible.

And, contrary to some, I’m not saying you should never bore your audience.  A child is bored with instructions on how to drive a car, but the typical 15-year-old may eat it up. A teenager may be bored with talk of retirement and how to plan for it, but the 60-year-olds absorb it hungrily.

You cannot make as an ironclad principle that you will never bore anyone.

Just try not to make a practice of it.