What makes a sermon difficult to listen to

I am closing in on my forty-third birthday and have been a churchgoer all my life.

A bit of simple math shows that I’ve probably listened to somewhere around 4,000 sermons over the course of my life (which undoubtedly means I should have far more knowledge of the Bible than I do and should be far holier than I am!).

I’ve also preached a few sermons of my own over the past 10 or 15 years.

Recently, and largely for my own purposes, I found myself thinking about some of the elements that can make a sermon difficult to listen to.

Having jotted them down, I thought I’d share them with you.

They have no obvious outline

Most people today are unaccustomed to listening to extended verbal communication.

Preachers can assist listening and comprehension by providing some kind of an outline.

It does not need to be a Lawsonesque alliterated masterpiece, but it is helpful to at least allow the congregation to know in advance how the sermon will unfold.

A solid outline also helps pull them back when their minds drift.

They can be pulled from daydream or confusion when they hear, “This brings us to the second great emphasis of this passage.” (I think it’s usually best to avoid using the word “point,” as in “My second point is…” Try to find a more interesting way of framing a sermon than through “points.”)

They include word studies

A sermon rarely improves from the point the pastor says, “In the Greek this word is…”

I suppose there are select occasions when mentioning and explaining a Greek or Hebrew term adds to the congregation’s understanding, but that’s rare.

Far more often than not, word studies are the kind of thing a pastor should do in his study and keep in his study.

The preacher ought to do his preparatory work in such a way that his sermon shows clear evidence that he has put in full effort and mined the depths of his passage.

But he doesn’t always need to explicitly show that work. (And yes, we all already know that dunamis is related to the English “dynamite.”)

They include extended quotes from commentaries

Commentaries are crucial when it comes to properly understanding a text.

Preachers rightly spend a good bit of their prep time learning from experts through their commentaries.

But there aren’t many occasions when the preacher should quote these experts.

To read a quote from a commentary, and especially at length, is to radically change the voice of the person speaking—from his own voice to the voice of a scholar.

It is to radically change the form of communication—from a spoken sermon to a written book.

It is often difficult for the congregation to make that transition, and often difficult for the congregation to understand the point that is being made.

It’s far better, on the whole, for the preacher to simply summarize in his own words.

They include citations

In college and seminary, it’s extremely important that references are carefully cited.

If the idea comes from someone else, you need to make that clear.

But in sermons, it’s not nearly so important.

If you are going to provided an extended quote or rigidly follow another person’s work (which you probably shouldn’t), it may make sense to provide a citation.

But otherwise, know for your own purposes which resources you relied upon, but don’t feel that you need an academic-level of citation in a sermon.

A sermon is not a paper and a church is not a seminary. Again, it’s typically far better to summarize than to quote. Continue reading

  • Tim Challies is a Christian, a husband to Aileen and a father to three children aged 11 to 17. He worships and serves as an elder at Grace Fellowship Church in Toronto, Ontario.
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