Anatomy of a Bad Sermon

The Church Revitalization Podcast – Episode 191

Not every job requires you to prepare a 25+ minute, fully-researched, professional presentation every single week. In fact, some people go their entire careers and never have to get in front of a crowd of people and speak to them. Public speaking regularly tops the list of things people fear–even more than death! But pastors are called to put away their fears and boldly proclaim the word of truth Sunday after Sunday.

A 2017 Survey from Gallup found that 76% of church-goers indicated that “Sermons or talks that teach you more about scripture” are a “major factor” for why they attend their church. With stakes this high, it’s critical that pastors not only put together a competent message, but a compelling sermon. Not every sermon will be your best, but it’s important that you avoid a truly bad sermon.

Unfortunately, in my experience in consulting with churches across the country, I’ve heard my fair share of truly bad sermons. Thankfully, it’s rare that a sermon is genuinely terrible. But there are a few bad habits that crop up frequently. Avoiding these bad sermon habits can elevate a “decent” sermon to a genuinely good sermon.

I encourage you to fully read each of these points and conduct a self-audit. Do you fall victim to any of these bad sermon habits? Go back and watch a few of your recent messages. You’re likely to be more critical of yourself than others will be, but that’s OK. Honest self-reflection is a key to continuous improvement. As you watch your most recent sermons, be on the lookout for these five bad sermon habits.

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1. Poor Pacing, Tone, & Tempo

Do you have a “preacher voice?” To some degree, we all do. Speaking to a room of 50, 100, 500, or more is different from speaking to one person across the table in a cafe. But it’s easy for pastors to develop an affectation that feels inauthentic. Done poorly, a pastor’s “preaching voice” can lead to poor pacing, tone, and tempo.

While it might initially sound like I’m advocating for you to simply teach and preach using your regular speaking voice rather than a “preacher voice,” I’m actually suggesting that you be more thoughtful about the way you’re speaking. The preacher voice that many pastors use is default, automatic, or even mimicked from well-known speakers like a Matt Chandler or Craig Groeschel. This default, modern preacher voice is well-known enough that some comedians on social media poke fun at it.

Instead, be thoughtful about how you sound when you speak. It starts by truly knowing your sermon. This doesn’t mean you need to write a manuscript and have it memorized, but it does mean you need a full grasp on your sermon and where it’s going to go. Only then can you speak more naturally and intentionally. 

Learn to read the emotions of the room. As Vinh Giang teaches in his public speaking training, it’s important to meet people where they’re at on an emotional level, and then take them where you want to go. Then you can leverage pacing, tone, and tempo to take people on the journey of your sermon.

Reflect on your delivery. Do you have a default mode and tempo? Or are you well-prepared enough that you can be fully present in the room, engaging with your congregation on an emotional level, and leveraging your vocal toolbox to guide people towards the truth of Scripture?

2. More Than One Point

When you begin to put together a sermon, it’s difficult to contain all the things you want to say. You will have spent many hours studying the passage, and so it feels like a disservice to the text to limit yourself to a single, overarching point to your sermon. But here’s the truth: the congregation is going to forget most of what you say. Therefore, if all of your points are not contributing to a single, primary point, your congregation will not grasp the primary truth you worked so hard to teach.

While the three-point sermon has its historical roots in religious traditions and public speaking, some folks argue that it may not be the best approach. In fact, there’s an alternative school of thought that emphasizes the importance of having one primary point in a sermon. A single main idea makes the sermon more memorable. Instead of dividing the message into three separate points, they argue that focusing on one central theme allows the congregation to grasp and retain the core message more effectively. 

By keeping things simple and concentrating on a single idea, it becomes easier for listeners to recall and reflect upon the sermon’s teachings long after the service has ended. It’s an intriguing notion that challenges the traditional structure of the three-point sermon and encourages preachers to craft messages that leave a lasting impact on the hearts and minds of the audience.

This doesn’t mean you cannot have more than one point in your sermon. But when you have three or five points, be certain that they tie into and reinforce the singular idea. In this way, each point is a reflection on the main point.

3. Wrong-Sized Sermon

A bad sermon tries to do too much in a given time slot. Different from the previous point where the preacher is disorganized in the flow of the message, this mistake is about the inability to curate the content. As the famous quote goes, “If you want me to give a ten-minute address, I must have at least two weeks in which to prepare myself, but if you want me to talk for an hour or more, I am ready.” These words hold wisdom that speaks directly to the challenge of time management in sermon preparation. 

When crafting a sermon, it’s crucial to consider the allocated time and ensure that the content aligns accordingly. A sermon that exceeds its time limit can leave both the preacher and the congregation feeling rushed and unsatisfied. It’s important to strike a balance, allowing enough time to delve into the main points, share meaningful insights, and provide relevant examples, all while respecting the time constraints. By doing so, you create a sermon that is focused, impactful, and conducive to effective communication. 

I was recently hearing a sermon from a pastor who had clearly spent many hours preparing. He had lots of good information, but he only had a 30-minute preaching window. For his sermon to have been paced properly, it would have taken at least 45 minutes. As a result, he had to speak quickly and run through important moments. He skipped past reading certain scriptures, and told us to look them up later. Even at his break-neck pace, the message went over. Everyone in the room felt exhausted at the end, and sadly I cannot recall much of what was said.

Remember, quality often trumps quantity, and delivering a concise, well-prepared message can leave a lasting impression on the hearts and minds of your audience.

4. Don’t Show Your Work

If there’s one of these bad sermon habits that I’m most likely to fall victim of, it’s this one. Some of us are Bible nerds, and we really enjoy a deep dive into the meaning of a word or how it’s conjugated, and what the significance of that might be. All of this research is often edifying on a personal level, and can even contribute to the content and quality of your sermon. But not every interesting thing you discover in your research needs to be shared.

Sometimes, we run the risk of trying to sound like a know-it-all. Or, we distract the congregation from the primary points we selected by honing in on ancillary information. Your sermon is not like your high school math homework; you don’t need to show all your work. Only walk the congregation through the content that’s relevant to your primary point.

Thankfully, we live in a day and age where you can easily provide supplemental material through digital tools. Write a weekly devotional or host a podcast where you can dive deeply into the nerdy Bible facts that you discovered in your preparation. Many people will find it interesting. But Sunday’s sermon is not the place to start diagramming every sentence in every verse.

Selectively talking about a word or phrase in the original language, only when it enhances the primary point, may be beneficial. But avoid the assumption that you need to share every cross-reference and linguistic nuance. It might be interesting, but if it’s not edifying for the sake of the primary point, cut it from the sermon.

5. The Anecdote Problem

We’ve all had moments when our anecdotes just didn’t land with the congregation. I know what it feels like to stare at the blinking cursor on your computer screen, trying to think of a relevant story that ties into your message, but coming up empty. When it comes to incorporating anecdotes into your sermon, finding the right balance between personal stories and anecdotes from other sources is key. Anecdotes have a powerful way of capturing attention and illustrating important points, but they must be used strategically and authentically. Shoehorning a story for a cheap laugh or to merely fill space is not good sermon writing. 

Instead, focus on sharing personal anecdotes that genuinely connect with the message you’re conveying. Your own experiences can bring a level of authenticity and relatability to your sermon. However, don’t shy away from including anecdotes from other sources, such as historical events, literature, or testimonies. These external stories can offer different perspectives and enrich your message. 

The key is to select anecdotes that align with the theme and purpose of your sermon, ensuring that they enhance the overall impact rather than detract from it. By carefully balancing personal and external anecdotes, you create a sermon that is both engaging and meaningful, resonating with your congregation in a genuine and memorable way.

The Simple Truth

A great sermon simply teaches God’s truth. Sometimes we think that the opposite of simple is complex. But this isn’t the case. The opposite of simple is complicated. Some of the most profound and complex things in the world are also simple.

Think about the smartphone that might be in your hand as you read this, or perhaps in your pocket. It’s been designed to be very simple to use. Tap a few buttons, and you can be speaking with a friend on the other side of the globe. Tap other buttons, and you can access the entirety of mankind’s collective knowledge via the Internet. Still other buttons open up games, videos, and entertainment. Even toddlers can grasp the simplicity of using a smartphone. 

But behind the glass screen is a complex integration of circuitry that I cannot begin to explain or comprehend. 

A great sermon is like a smartphone. When you hear it, it just makes sense. The point is clear. The anecdotes reinforce the point. Listening to it is pleasant, and engages the mind and the emotions.

It’s God’s truth, presented simply.

But to execute at this level requires a high degree of complexity behind the pulpit. It takes practicing the message, so that you feel natural when speaking. It requires selecting a single point and supporting arguments that reinforce that point. It requires curating the content so that it fits properly in its time slot. It demands that you show restraint in showing all of your work. And it means only integrating the right kinds of anecdotes that enhance your point rather than distract from it.

Put simply, simple preaching is about distilling complexity.

A bad sermon is usually just a few thoughtful tweaks away from being a good sermon. Take time to audit your preaching. Where can you grow? Which of these five bad habits are you most likely to fall victim of?

BONUS: Watch this episode on YouTube.

Scott Ball is the Vice President and a Lead Guide with The Malphurs Group. He lives in East Tennessee with his wife and two children. (Email Scott).

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