When A Sermon Flops: 10 Ways To Diagnose a Dud

“Winning never feels as good as losing feels lousy,” said Pat Riley, the former NBA coach. Likewise, preaching a great sermon never feels as good as preaching a bad sermon feels lousy. My worst attempts at preaching have given me far more pain than my successes have brought me joy, and here are some of the factors that contribute to a homiletical flop.

  1. Why does a flop hurt so much?

One study found that experiencing failure (compared to success) makes people experience unrelated physical pain more intensely, and that failure even reduces your ability to tolerate physical pain.[1] Other research found that emotional pain sticks with us longer than physical pain, meaning that you have an easier time replaying emotional pain that remembering physical pain.[2]

Failure hurts. Even the most thick-skinned, self-confident pastor can be rattled by delivering a lemon in the pulpit.

  1. Did they heckle you?

In the first church I served as lead pastor I had people in the congregation who heckled me while I preached (next time you have a bad Sunday just tell yourself, “At least they didn’t heckle me”). Jesus said, “We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn” (Matthew 11:17, NIV), and sometimes no matter how great the sermon is, a congregation just will not respond appropriately.

Preachers ought to examine themselves first, but there are times when this is the case. If they heckled you, or if their hearts were hard, then maybe it’s a good Sunday to kick the dust off your feet, have lunch, and find your favorite couch for taking a well-deserved nap. 

  1. Did you get a different response in a different service?

Once this year I was speaking in a church with three services (one service on Saturday night, and two on Sunday morning). When I got in my car after the Saturday night service, I turned to my wife and said, “Well, obviously I need to totally overhaul this message overnight, or figure out something else overnight altogether.” She completely disagreed and said the sermon was great, but the group of people gathered that evening were just not responsive. Eventually she conceded one or two minor tweaks for the morning services, but said, “Don’t you dare change anything else. Watch and see – it will be different tomorrow,” so I reluctantly conceded to my wife because of her persistence. The next morning the response was entirely different, so much different that a man walked up to me after the first service and said, “I’m 50 years old and that’s the first time in my life church has made any sense. Thank you.” I have known many other pastors who have had the same experience. My wife was right (as per usual).

Maybe you don’t get to preach the same sermon in multiple services or multiple locations and therefore don’t get to write off a lackluster response in one service because the next service was more positive, but sometimes a sermon that flops is just a matter of different strokes for different folks.

  1. Were you prepared to preach?

I put hard work and long hours into sermon preparation because I want people to understand scripture in a clear and life-changing way. I also put so much time into preparation because it bothers me so much to preach a sermon that flops. A well-prepared sermon can still bomb, but it is a blessing to both pastor and church when a preacher is adequately prepared. If you did not feel as prepared as you could have been, maybe you could set aside more time to prepare this week, or block out an extra afternoon to prepare this week, and see if a little more preparation makes a difference.

  1. Did you fumble the delivery?

You can have a great sermon prepared, but stumbling in the delivery can overshadow your content. There are many professional athletes who possess extraordinary skill, but struggle to perform in a critical moment of a game. Likewise, having something worth while to share is a key to good preaching, but the ability to actually say it is equally critical. If your flop was a problem of delivery, you might find it helpful to spend some time rehearsing your delivery, including your gestures (or lack thereof). Maintaining good volume, while also varying your volume and pitch at appropriate times can go a long way in improving your preaching.

  1. Were you sick, distracted, or otherwise not at your best?

It happens to all of us. You have done everything in your control to be ready to preach well, but something happens beyond your control. Did you:
…wake up with a headache?
…experience technical difficulties?
…have an emergency or other disruption interrupt the service?
…get blindsided by one of those “Pastor, I just need to let you know how much I was hurt by…” conversations right before you had to preach?

If it was beyond your control, then it’s good to be able to adjust and fight through a less-than-ideal situation, but cut yourself some slack.

  1. Did you take a chance on something but it turned out to be a mistake?

Terry Pegula owns my beloved Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres with his wife Kim, and in a 2013 interview he said he told the hockey department, “Make mistakes. I love mistakes. I want to see you make mistakes because the day you’re afraid to make a mistake is the day you stop taking chances.”

I think that’s true for preachers, too. Give yourself permission to make mistakes, and it might just improve your preaching. Sometimes a creative idea or an illustration goes better than you even hoped. Other times, not so much. It’s the preacher’s responsibility to make every effort to separate the good ideas from the bad ahead of time, of course, but if the problem with your sermon was an idea that didn’t pay off, then this is an easy fix. You learned a valuable lesson: don’t waste it (but don’t repeat it, either). As Tim Fargo said, “Analyze your mistakes. You’ve already paid the tuition, you might as well get the lesson.”

  1. Were you clear?

One friend told me recently on a Sunday morning, “I know I’m on the board, but I’m not sure if I’m hitting the nail.” I picked up the habit a few years ago of summarizing my whole sermon in one sentence when I think I’m done working on it. If I can’t preach it in one sentence, I know I’m not ready to say it with 20-30 minutes. If you aren’t sure whether your hitting the nail or not, chances are your congregation won’t even know which nail you’re aiming for in your sermon.

  1. Are you sure it flopped?

A small church near our college campus was without a pastor two years ago, so I went to preach for a Sunday, but it did not seem to go well. They could not have been more disengaged while I spoke, and when the service was over the congregation was cold and aloof. I kept thinking, “Was I really that bad? Guess I won’t be going back there!” A lay leader from that church called the college a few weeks later to see if more people from Houghton could speak at their church, and much to my surprise he asked for me by name, hoping I was available to preach there every Sunday. Go figure. I thought the message had flopped, but apparently I had totally misread the response of the congregation.

Maybe it was fine, or maybe it was neither your best nor your worst. You can’t throw a touchdown on every throw, and some sermons will just be satisfactory, but not particularly memorable. Perhaps, it went even better than you think, though.

  1. Can the Holy Spirit still use a flop?

Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, was an ordained minister, and when he was a seminary student he attended a different church each Sunday so that he could hear an assortment of preachers. On one of those Sundays, he heard what he described as the worst sermon he had ever heard in his life. When he looked to his friend that day, however, she was in tears. She told him the sermon had been was exactly what she needed to hear that day. “That’s when I realized,” Rogers said, “that the space between someone doing the best he or she can and someone in need is holy ground. The Holy Spirit had transformed that feeble sermon for her—and as it turned out, for me too.”

Winning never feels as good as losing feels lousy, but we who preach would do well to leave the wins & losses to the Lord. The Holy Spirit can transform a feeble sermon into a timely message for someone.
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Dr. Steve Dunmire is Director of the Office of Ministry Resources at Houghton College (Houghton, NY). He is an ordained pastor in the Wesleyan Church, and was a pastor in Buffalo-Niagara region churches of New York State for 12 years. Steve also serves as director and primary instructor for Houghton College’s Equipping for Ministry program, which provides non-traditional classes for adults seeking ordination and personal enrichment. Steve is married to Tammy, and they have four children. For more content visit SteveDunmire.com, or follow him on twitter at @DrSteveDunmire

© Steve Dunmire 2015

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I am now an author for the Seedbed Preaching Collective, and this article was written for the Preaching Collective page.  Click here to read it on the Seedbed Preaching Collective, and to find other Preaching Collective content.

Seedbed Preaching Collective
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[1] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/11124005/?i=2&from=/8233549/related

[2] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-squeaky-wheel/201307/10-surprising-facts-about-rejection

5 Ways to Make the Most of Your Sermon Preparation.

How can a pastor make the most of limited sermon preparation time? There is no one right amount of time to spend in working on a message, but whether they are able to spend a lot of time or not, every pastor wants to maximize the impact of their sermon preparation time.

When analyzing the results of a recent non-scientific poll I conducted among 26 pastors, I realized that there were three distinct groups of pastors in regard to the amount of time they spend in sermon preparation. The differences became even more stark when I split them up into three tiers, the lowest 8 pastors in terms of reported time, the cluster of 9 pastors in the middle of the pack, and the 8 pastors who reported the most sermon preparation time:

Tier 1: 6 hours, 18 minutes
Tier 2: 10 hours, 36 minutes
Tier 3: 18 hours, 7 minutes

What was most interesting to me about these results was that those who spend the most time prepare their the most are spending their time differently. Compared to the Tier 1 group of pastors, the Tier 3 pastors spend:

74% more time studying
169% more time writing/outlining
657% more time editing
357% more time rehearsing
361% more time in long-range planning

So what does that mean? Yes, they spend more total time studying and writing their sermons (10.5 hours compared to less than 5 hours), but there are five things pastors can learn to make the most of their sermon preparation time based on this data.

  1. Edit Your Sermon

The Tier 3 pastors in the study said they spend 657% more time revising their sermons than Tier 1 pastors (almost 4 hours compared to 30 minutes). As one of my seminary professors used to tell us when he would return our papers, “There is no good writing; only good rewriting.” I might say, “There are no good sermons; only good revised sermons.”

Of course by “edit” we don’t mean you have to worry about punctuation or spelling errors because you’re not submitting your sermon for a grade (unless, of course, those hinder your ability to effectively deliver the message). Instead you would want to watch for things like (1) Does this flow? (2) Are any sections too long? (3) Do I spend adequate time introducing the sermon? (4) Do I spend adequate time concluding the sermon? (5) Am I saying what I am really trying to say? (6) Can I effectively summarize this sermon in 1-2 sentences? (7) Where do I need to inject humor? (8) Do my illustrations distract from the message, or help it? (9) Is everything in my sermon where it belongs, or do I need to move this story to the beginning, or this quote to the end? (10) Do I have enough for this sermon, not enough, or too much?

One pastor commented, “I can preach a 27 minute sermon on 25 minutes of prep for a run of the mill sermon,” but this participant pointed out that the bulk of sermon preparation consists of finding the right way to say something, not just saying it. Another pastor confessed that more preparation time actually results in shorter sermons, not longer, “since it takes longer to figure out what not to say than what to say.”

Rewriting and editing may be the single most important factor in making the most of your time in sermon preparation. It is not the most fun part of sermon preparation, but it might just have the greatest payoff.

  1. Read & Plan Ahead

The second biggest difference was that the Tier 3 pastors spend 361% more time on long-range planning (102 minutes compared to 24 minutes per week). Some have one time when they plan for the whole year, some spend time in long-range planning every 2-3 months, while others still spend a little bit of time every week.

One of the biggest benefits of long-range planning is it allows you prepare to preach even when you are doing something else. The reticular activating system is a cluster of cells in your brain stem and their primary function is to decide what you notice, and what you do not notice. Mark Batterson writes, “That is why goal setting is so important. It creates a category in your reticular activating system, and you start noticing anything and everything that will help you accomplish the goal.” So once you make a preaching plan for the coming year, your brain – all on its own – will help you start to notice stories, quotes, and insights in the course of your daily activities. Then all you have to do is gather them.

Similarly, many of the pastors reported how reading is essential part of being ready to preach, even if not a part of their preaching preparation for that week. “Reading will deepen the well from which the preacher can drink,” says my colleague at Houghton College, Dr. Rich Eckley, “Pumping the well dry, conversely, churns up the same tired clichés.”

One of the best ways you can maximize your sermon preparation time is by planning ahead, and reading. Planning and reading will populate your sermons with rich content, even if you do not realize it is happening at the very moment.

  1. Rehearse: Practice What You Will Preach

The final major difference was that Tier 3 pastors spend 357% more time rehearsing their sermons than the Tier 1 pastors (over 2 hours compared to less than 30 minutes). Particularly surprising to me was that those who said they rehearse their sermon delivery reported spending on average 35% more time in total sermon preparation than the rest of the group, but less than half of that additional sermon prep time is being spend on rehearsal. On average these pastors reported spending 1.5 hours in sermon preparation. Therefore, those who rehearse spend 19% more time in total sermon prep than their counterparts before their time rehearsing their sermon.

In response to this survey, 60% of participating pastors reported that they rehearse delivering their sermons. Some of the other pastors offered a variety of explanations for why they do not rehearse their sermon, like one pastor who said, “I cannot preach to an empty room. I stumble over every sentence.”

Dr. Lenny Luchetti, Professor of Proclamation & Christian Ministries at Wesley Seminary, urges pastors to spend time in rehearsal: “Preachers should spend adequate time between the completion of the sermon and the actual preaching event reflecting on how they will say what God has called them to say to their congregations. In other words, preachers will want to practice what they preach.”

It may be uncomfortable at first, but one of the best ways to improve your preaching, and make the most of your preparation time, might be to practice preaching your sermon. In my case, this is when I do the bulk of my editing. I will get hung up on a section, or realize that something is not flowing naturally, or that I need some levity mixed into a particularly long section, so I will rewrite or revise, and come back to rehearsal again.

  1. Avoid Interruptions

You can maximize your sermon preparation time by eliminating distractions. Pastors often like to prepare to preach at a coffee shop, but these places are rife with distractions. “A key to maximizing my time is being able to get at least a few hours in (ideally several hours) without interruption,” noted one of the pastors who reported sermon preparation time almost twice the average of the total group.

It is so basic that it hardly seems worth noting here, but a key to making the most of your sermon preparation time is to avoid interruptions: put it in your calendar, clear your desk, refuse to be interrupted, get away from anything that will distract you, avoid social media, turn off your email, and get down to work. One pastor noted, “If I can have uninterrupted blocks of time, I can cut down my sermon preparation time by as much as 30 percent.”

  1. Prayer and Personal Devotion

Only two pastors noted in a comment section that they pray as part of their sermon preparation. Did prayer shorten their sermon preparation time? Quite the opposite: they actually reported spending twice as much time in sermon preparation as the rest of the group (20 hours per week compared to 10 hours per week for the pastors who did not comment about prayer). Sermon preparation does not show a lack of faith, and prayer need not compete with preparation. For those pastors who indicated prayer as a component of their preparation, prayer is not a shortcut. I suspect they see it as something that strengthens their planning, though. As Richard Baxter wrote centuries ago, “All week long is little enough, to study how to speak two hours; and yet one hour seems too much to study how to live all the week.”

© Steve Dunmire 2015

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I am now an author for the Seedbed Preaching Collective, and this article was written for the Preaching Collective page.  Click here to read it on the Seedbed Preaching Collective, and to find other Preaching Collective content.

Seedbed Preaching Collective

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Dr. Steve Dunmire is Director of the Office of Ministry Resources at Houghton College (Houghton, NY). He is an ordained pastor in the Wesleyan Church, and was a pastor in Buffalo-Niagara region churches of New York State for 12 years. Steve also serves as director and primary instructor for Houghton College’s Equipping for Ministry program, which provides non-traditional classes for adults seeking ordination and personal enrichment. Steve is married to Tammy, and they have four children. For more content visit SteveDunmire.com, or follow him on twitter at @DrSteveDunmire

1. Mark Batterson The Circle Maker. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011. 188-189.

2. Lenny Luchetti “Practice (Literally) What You Preach”