Lessons from the Worst Sermon I Ever Heard
I try to make a habit of not listening to other people’s preaching with a critical spirit. After all, I know how much unseen work goes into writing a good sermon. And I also know how sometimes, despite your best efforts, the sermon you’ve planned doesn’t come off in quite the same way you’d hoped. So when I visit other churches, my heart is disposed to be as generous as I can possibly be toward the preacher and his efforts.
I spent this past summer on sabbatical, so I had an opportunity to listen to a lot of preaching in a bunch of different churches. All of the churches I attended—and all of the men who pastor them—are faithful to Christ. As far as I can tell, they love God and love his gospel, and are anxious to see people come to Christ in faith. All of the sermons I heard contained true, convicting, and useful things for listeners to know, believe, and act on.
But by the end of the summer, I’d come to the conclusion that there’s something very wrong with lots of evangelical preaching. Here are my informal notes from the summer:
- Less than half of the sermons mentioned that Jesus died on the cross.
- Not once did any preacher explain what sin was or why we need to be saved from it.
- Only once in three months did a preacher mention that Jesus was raised from the dead.
I have to admit that when the service concluded and the preacher invited people to come forward to receive Christ, I had no idea why anyone would—based on the sermon alone. I was left with questions: What was the meaning of Jesus’ life? What was the purpose of his death? Is he still dead? Why do I need to be saved? Could I just earn my own salvation? What happens after I “give my life to Jesus”?
Again, I think all of these pastors and most of the people in these churches love Jesus. The problem is they assume everyone else already knows the whole story of the Bible. After all, the reasoning goes, they are in church, and people in church don’t need to have sin or Jesus or the resurrection explained to them week in and week out; they just need to be encouraged and exhorted and sent out.
But think for a second about the kind of disciples this preaching creates. If people feed on such meager spiritual meals week in and week out, their understanding of what it means to be a Christian will certainly be warped over time. It will color the way they read their Bibles on a Thursday morning. It will impact the way they turn to the Scriptures when they have a problem.
Okay, here’s the point of this article: the antidote to this kind of preaching is a commitment to biblical theology. Our churches need an approach to preaching and discipling that takes the entire story of the Bible seriously. We regularly need to bring biblical theology to bear on our ministry in order to understand and accurately communicate the message of whatever text we’re teaching.
THE WORST SERMON I’VE EVER HEARD
At this point, I could give you lots of examples of people doing an excellent job in this regard, but where’s the fun in that? Instead, let me tell you about the worst sermon I’ve ever heard, and how a little biblical theology could have fixed it. It was delivered at a men’s conference by a nationally known preacher with a good reputation in the evangelical community.
As his launching point, the preacher used the story from Genesis 18 where Abraham bargains with God over the fate of Sodom. From this he draws a lesson: God is looking for one righteous man in your family. Just as he examined Sodom for the presence of righteous people, so he is watching your home and looking for a righteous man. The application was clear: you need to be that man; you should stop making excuses and stop being selfish and immature.
To be clear, everything I know about this preacher tells me that he believes the gospel. He’s a far more powerful communicator than I will ever be, and his preaching is engaging, funny, and well-illustrated. And everyone, myself included, walked out of that room wanting to be a better man.
And that’s what made it such a bad sermon.
Leave aside for a moment whether or not the preacher’s message did justice to what Genesis 18 is really about (hint: it did not), and let’s instead focus on an even more important question: was it even a Christian sermon? Isn’t “work harder, do better” a message that our Muslim and Buddhist friends can embrace? Is the message of Christianity really that God is watching to see if we’re good enough, so we’d better clean up and fly right?
Don’t get me wrong: the sermon did eventually get around to mentioning Jesus. But instead of explaining the gospel, the preacher used an illustration that compared Jesus to Mickey Goldmill from the Rocky movies, particularly the moment where Mickey appears to our down-and-out hero in Rocky V and urges him to “get up and fight…because Mickey loves you.”
The problem with that illustration is fivefold:
- It compares Jesus to a dead boxing trainer who appears during a boxer’s hallucination. I’m pretty sure we can do better.
- A sermon ought to proclaim the gospel of Christ from the actual text that’s being considered. Essentially, what the preacher did was create a problem (crushing guilt) by mishandling the text, and then attempted to solve it by shoehorning Jesus into the sappy ending of a terrible movie.
- What was preached is not really the gospel. Jesus doesn’t come to us and say, “I love you, now get back to work.” If you were going to try and clean up that mess, you need to say something like: God is looking for one good man in your home, and he didn’t find him. And so you deserve to be judged like Sodom. But here’s the good news: he sent his Son to be that one good man and to undergo the judgment that you deserve. He rose from the dead and gives you his perfect righteousness as a gift. And so now you are free from guilt; the old you is dead and there’s a new you in Christ, and you’re empowered by his Spirit to live in a totally new way. This pastor put his hearers down in the midst of the wrong story. He located them in some terrible world where all Jesus does for us is tell us that he loves us so that we can improve ourselves and thus try to fend off God’s terrible judgment.
- It doesn’t even work. If everyone walked out of that conference thinking what they really need to do is try harder, how long do you think that lasts? A week or two at most. Why? Because there’s no lasting power in that kind of message; it just gets you pumped up for a little while.
- People walked out of the building thinking that this is a legitimate way to read and interpret the Bible.
HOW WE CAN DO BETTER
So, what went wrong with this sermon? How might we find ourselves down the same unhelpful path, maybe without even knowing it? To avoid similar errors, we need to take biblical theology seriously in our preaching. We need to place our text in the much larger context of the Bible’s storyline so that we can locate ourselves in relationship to its overarching themes and meaning.
What that preacher did was take a text and zoom in without ever zooming out. He locked on to the idea of God looking for righteousness in the midst of unrighteousness and he never came up for air, so he had nowhere helpful to go. He had no legitimate ways to get from the event in Genesis 18 to his audience.
And that’s a shame, because that passage actually has a number of great threads that he could have pulled out instead.
- Abraham’s question: shall not the judge of all the earth do what is right?
- The theme of judgment against sin.
- The idea of God’s mercy shown to a family that he had chosen out of the world.
Now those are some biblical ideas to work with. A preacher should explain how they grow out of the Genesis narrative and find their ultimate fulfillment in Christ, the one righteous man who took our judgment so that we could be the recipients of God’s unmerited mercy.
We can do better than sermons that twist the text and leave people with nothing more than a Bible-based pep talk. When you preach a text, remember that it’s a statement made in the context of the story of the Bible and that every text invites us to find our lives in that story. Therefore, may all our preaching invite unbelievers to find true life in Christ, and may all our preaching call Christians to walk in light of what God has done, is doing, and promises to do in Jesus.