The Preacher's Toolbox: When the Sermon Flops
Regardless of why they happen, sermon flops do happen to all of us. So, what should you do next?
They happen for any number of reasons. You didn’t get enough sleep. The congregation was distracted. Technology issues derailed the proclamation. You were insufficiently prepared. Regardless of why they happen, sermon flops do happen. To all of us. So, what should you do next?
Before going any further, we should probably define what we mean by a “sermon flop.” The term is admittedly relative. One man’s flop is another man’s feat—or, more to the point, one man’s flop may in fact be God’s feat. By all accounts St. Paul’s sermon at Mars Hill (Acts 17:22-32) looked like a failure. It’s aged pretty well, though.
That caveat in mind, I would define a sermon flop thusly: proclamation that fails to engage the hearers with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Flops are difficult to measure, but I think it’s fair to say that there are some common features. They’ll typically be characterized by one or more from the following incomplete list:
- Disconnected from Scripture
- Poor delivery
- Soft on the Law
- Too long
- Too abstract
And so on. The bottom line is that the preaching doesn’t hit the mark with the good news. I think that preachers themselves generally have a sense when the sermon flops, but if they don’t then most of them have a nearly-infallible source of feedback: their spouses. Don’t worry, they’ll tell you the truth.
So the sermon flopped. You know it. Your people probably know it. What then? Too often, the response is self-flagellation, aided by Satan’s accusations. The sermon flopped because you’re a bad pastor, if not a bad Christian. You’re lazy. You stink at your job. Why don’t you just quit the pretending and go work at Costco already?
As attractive as the thought of going to work at Costco might be some days, let’s just assume for argument’s sake that it’s off the table. And as masochistically satisfying as it can be to indulge in those most negative thoughts, like a sports fan relishing in his team’s demise, it’s ultimately not helpful. Pity parties are the worst parties. They don’t even have cocktail wieners.
So, then, what? How can you best move forward after a sermon flop?
Moving forward after a flop
The first step, which self-flagellation approximates but does not actuate, is to confess. Homiletical sins are admittedly a narrow niche in the sin market, but they are no less sinful for that. Not every flop is the result of sin, mind you, but many are. Be honest with yourself on this. Admit before the Lord, if not a pastor-confessor, that you have not loved Him or His people as you ought, and the sermon flop is the result of that impoverished devotion.
Recall that God has called and appointed you to the pulpit. He didn’t put you there in the assumption that you would nail every last sermon.
Secondly, following fast on the heels of your confession: remember your calling. I mean this in both the broad and the narrow sense. In the broad sense, remember that you are a called and baptized child of God. Receive the absolving word of grace for yourself that you proclaim to others. (Again, homiletical sins are no less sinful, but neither are they more so.) In the narrow sense, recall that God has called and appointed you to the pulpit. He didn’t put you there in the assumption that you would nail every last sermon. And in fact, even through your weakness His mercy is made known. As St. Paul advises, “Consider your calling, brothers”:
Not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God (1 Corinthians 1:26–29).
Revived by His grace, then, and reassured that your worth is not wrapped up in a sermon flop (or feat), the third step is to perform a preaching postmortem. If you can stomach it, go back and watch or listen to the sermon. What factors caused it to flop? How did you manage to leave the people of God in the grave? Where did the connection fail? In my experience, such simple questions quickly surface the problem. The purpose of the postmortem is not to beat a dead homilist but to elicit a living Word. And friends, we could all stand to do a little more of this. What distinguishes the preaching profession is not that it makes so many mistakes; what too often distinguishes it is that its practitioners are so slow to learn from them. Periodic postmortems can help.
Fourthly, I recommend following a sermon flop with a bread-and-butter, back-to-basics message. Maybe you flopped because you tried a new structure that you hadn’t adequately honed; return to a tried-and-true favorite. Maybe you flopped because you were doing some experimental theologizing in the pulpit; retreat to the core message of the gospel. The wounds of your own failure still fresh in your psyche, when you intone the same old song of God’s grace you will be all the more compelling.Take heart. No sermon is perfect, and every preacher flops. For better and for worse, another Sunday is coming. Heed the advice of a friend of mine who works in showbiz. He told me that after directing a live, on-air production he would say “good rehearsal everybody” when they wrapped. Those are words worth pondering. After all, this side of Jesus’ return, they’re all rehearsals
 A seminary professor recommended keeping your diploma of vocation close at hand in your study for such crises of conscience and calling. Just as the Christian counters trials with the declaration, “I’m baptized!” so the pastor adds, “I’m ordained!”