Possibly the worst sermon ever

When I finished pastoring at Edgeworth Baptist, Sandy, the kids and I went searching for a new church to belong to. We weren’t looking for perfection, just for somewhere we could all feel connected, where the preaching helped us make sense of life, and where there was a desire to be a positive influence for good in the world. The first and the third were relatively easy to find. I never dreamed it would be so difficult to find half decent preaching.

The first church we visited had a preacher who should have stood up and said, “I had a really difficult week so I didn’t have time to prepare a sermon”. But when it’s Father’s Day, you’re expected to have something profound to say.

This preacher had a charismatic personality and was brimming with confidence. He reported that God had woken him three times the previous night and on each occasion given him something to say. God woke him at 1am, 3am, and 6am. But apparently God was tired too because it was all gibberish. It sounded like he’d gathered a bunch of books by Steven Biddulph and James Dobson and selected random sentences, cut them out and strung them together.

The crowning moment came towards the end of the talk when the pastor halted mid sentence and said, “wait, there’s more coming through now.” It was still gibberish.

Everyone has a bad day, so we went back two more times but it was no better. The second time a different preacher was doing a men-are-from-Mars-women-from-Venus kind of thing. He basically described his own personality type, said “all men are like this”, and misquoted a few verses to back himself up. He then described his wife’s temperament and said all women are like her.

How good it was to walk into another church a few weeks later and hear great preaching by the pastor there. First, he set the passage he was exploring in context and showed how it was addressing issues of its time. Second, he explored how the themes of the text related to issues of our time. Third, he explained it all in language the average person could understand. Fourth, he did it with a sense of humility, not declaring “thus says the Lord”, but “this is what I think the Lord is saying to us. What do you think?” He invited us into the conversation.

And I reckon these things are pretty much what makes a good, solid sermon.

So does it matter? The church with the bad preaching was large and vibrant, with lots of great ministry going on. The pastor was a dynamic leader, taking the congregation forward.

I think it does matter. When we approach the Bible it can function as a mirror or a window. We all come with particular beliefs, attitudes, values and behaviours, and the tendency is to see them mirrored in the Bible, which provides  those beliefs, attitudes, values and behaviours with divine sanction. I hope I’m wrong, but I suspect that’s all the congregation in the first church will ever get. They’ll do tremendous things, they’ll be aware how their values, reinforced by their reading of Scripture, contrast with “the world”, but their underlying paradigms will remain unchanged. They will apply the faith they have but that faith won’t change much, at least not as a result of the preaching.

The second preacher saw the Bible as a window. As he took us into the text it was as though we were looking on another world, and by getting inside and exploring it we began to see things in new ways. We could compare and contrast with our own world and engage in some self critique. I suspect this means the members of the second church are more likely to be changed at a deep level. And that’s why I think it matters.

Interested to hear your thoughts.

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Rick Plumb
9 years ago

After a hard week, we want to be encouraged, enlightened and challenged. We look for fresh insight into what God is saying to us in our context. When we find the preacher has been too busy to prepare and is winging it -it is a let down and the be happy lets clap songs when the roof is falling in don’t help either -thankfully the preaching at bridgeman downs baptist is great. Guess that is why there a 4 services a day and the place is chockers at every service. Thanks for your thoughts Scott -on the mark as usual.

Shirley Moore
9 years ago

Went to a church once which was growing in no but all the pastor did was rave about what he had done with no teaching. He laughed about the people he had offended along the way

Debra Cole
9 years ago

Its better to ask the HS to guide you to the right church, then you wont get dissapointed.

Dave Rowe
9 years ago

Yup… heard a few of those “shockers” (no doubt delivered plenty as well). I’ve often been challenged in my understanding of what’s going on in that some of the worst sermons I’ve heard have been in some of the most flourishing, packed churches. Such a complex dynamic at work as we open the Scripture and invite His Spirit to speak isn’t it! I’m also struck by the regularity of my ‘best’ and ‘worst’ messages being the same message evaluated by different people on the same day and been humbled by how much the listener brings to the experience.What a privilege… Read more »

Scott Higgins
9 years ago
Reply to  Dave Rowe

Hi Dave, insightful as always. Particularly struck by your comment that the listener bring so much to the experience. Very true. Given how many churches thrive in spite of the preaching makes me wonder if we professional Christians maybe overplay the importance of the sermon?

Dave Rowe
9 years ago
Reply to  Dave Rowe

Yeah – I’ve really struggled with that too. I think where I’ve settled is I have to do the best I can, recognising that that’s just my part of the engagement. I must say the bit I particularly love is when, after the sermon, someone says “what you said about ‘x’ really spoke to me’ …. and thinking … “I didn’t say anything about ‘x’, but OK!” …. it’s that fearfully and wonderfully made stuff eh … unity in diversity and all that stuff we really struggle to live true to! 🙂

Paul Avery
9 years ago

Hi Scott, it was great to catch up a few weeks ago. Before I got home from the rest of that trip I was challenged by these words from Revelation 2. 2 I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. 3 You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. 4 Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first.… Read more »

Scott Higgins
9 years ago
Reply to  Paul Avery

Hi Paul,

Yes thoroughly enjoyed catching up. Don’t want to be too hard on the preacher I mentioned. I’ve had my own last minute larry sermon prep.

Paul Avery
9 years ago

Guilty of the same. Not several weeks in a row though. Also had a mate ssay to me he no longer prepares but opens Gods word each Sunday morning and let’s the Spirit do the rest.

Kim Vanden Hengel
9 years ago

Always keenly aware of the pulpit power where hundreds are forced to listen for at least 20 mins – figure what I have to say had better be worth their time and attention….living with Bart for 32 years and hearing hundreds of his sermons has kept me challenged to keep thinking and growing and discovering what God’s trying to say to us today…. as my mother always reminded us, ‘we don’t go to church for the minister’ however…. if the preacher woman or man isn’t bringing fresh, nourishing food to the table each week, it’s hard to stay put. Love… Read more »

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