I must confess – I have been known to be a boring preacher. Often being boring is not a matter of preparation or expertise, or style of delivery. Often we bore people because we fail to consider purpose.
What characterises a bore? Imagine you’re at a social occasion—perhaps a dinner or a dance. What is this bore doing? The bore would not be sitting with me, watching others dance and wondering “What does this all mean?” The bore is not fiddling with his or her phone or reading a book or otherwise failing to be exciting. Invariably, he or she is talking—talking too much while everyone else wonders, “Why are you telling me this?”
I still recall sitting with a distant relative and being told about the size and value-for-money of a pie he had bought and how long it took him to eat it—he told this story for about half an hour.
In our circles we pride ourselves in the quality of our preaching—how rigorously we are schooled in the Bible and how faithfully we present the word of God—but I suspect some of us preachers are at risk of having too much in common with the average bore. Of course, talking too much is not the issue—preaching is, if nothing else, the act of talking while a group of people (often against their will) sits and listens. What we may share in common, though, is the question we provoke in the minds of our listeners: “What is your point?”
Preaching instruction often focuses heavily on shaping the content that our prospective preachers will present—whether by finding the supposed ‘main idea’ of the text, or by mastering a basic three-point structure, or by stating, illustrating and applying each point. These are helpful guides for rookies, but not the only essentials to preaching.
Alternatively, preaching training might emulate a Toastmasters group in emphasising the delivery of the message—as if varying tone and pace, making eye contact, waving your arms, or mastering Powerpoint will engage the audience. It helps, but above all it is content that matters. If the audience is superficially entertained, you might have helped them avoid boredom, but the nagging dissatisfaction of not knowing why will remain—“Why are you telling me this?”
I have borrowed Rick Warren’s ‘Purpose-Driven’ trademark (at least until the cease-and-desist order) to address what I think is a chief shortcoming in much of today’s preaching—it lacks awareness of purpose. There are too many outstanding ‘why?’ questions. I don’t know why the preacher is saying what he’s saying; I’m not sure that he knows why he’s saying what he’s saying (except perhaps that it has to do with the text); and I’m not sure that the preacher knows why the author of the text is saying what he’s saying.
A key difference between good preaching and boring preaching is to recognise that a sermon is a piece of communication. Ordinary communication is always purpose-driven: we have something we wish to tell a certain hearer for a certain reason, and we select what we say accordingly. And unlike at church, if we take too long, we’ll be told to get to the point. Communication aims to achieve a certain purpose in the hearer—and so communication is only as effective as the ability of the hearer to receive it. In preaching, it doesn’t matter how good your preparation in your study is, if you do not accommodate the message to the level and needs of your audience, the message will pass them by.
There is ultimately no difference between excellent exegesis that no one heard and a terrible exposition of the text that no one heard. In either case, no one heard it.
We often spend too much time re-saying things that are in the text, just because they are in the text. This is to forget that preaching is an act of communication, and that communication is ultimately listener-focused. The listener becomes bored not because the Bible is boring, but because he or she doesn’t know why you’re repeating what it says. Why are you telling me this?
By contrast, being listener-focused means:
- understanding your audience well enough to know why they ought to listen to the message—if you haven’t found something about the text that you absolutely have to tell them, perhaps you should look again or pick a new text;
- making sure that your audience understands why they ought to listen—sermons should self-consciously persuade the audience of the importance of the message; and
- applying the text (i.e. teasing out the implications for the listener, or showing how the text confronts us all and demands change) is as important as the content itself.
Preaching is an act of communication: it is about taking a message from God given millennia ago, and communicating it (by God’s help) powerfully and prophetically to your own audience. This demands that we know why the original author said what he did to his people, and that we know why we’re saying what we’re saying to ours. Being ‘faithful to the text’ is only half the job of preaching; being faithful as a preacher means making sure that the text is heard.
If you’ve chosen what to say with a sense of purpose, and if you convince your hearer of that purpose, you’ll inspire less boredom and more people.
Some Advice for Preachers
Make sure to answer more ‘Why?’ questions than ‘What?’ questions. Your message should be an act of persuasion—you should be addressing the will of your hearer with God’s word.
About whatever you choose to say, you must be able to answer the question, “Why is this important?” And the answer should not be “For your information” (at least not too often).
Don’t let application be an afterthought, and don’t let it be shallow. Spend more time on it than you think you should, and spend more time in the study generating ideas about how the text might address different groups in your congregation or people in various stages of life.
Vague, boring application is often the result of vague, generalised understanding of the text. Preaching only the ‘main point’ (if it is used as an excuse to dispense with the detail) leads to the same repetitive generalisations emerging week-by-week. The unique contribution(s) of each text are as important as its ‘big point’, especially in application. Understand texts in detail, even if your resultant sermons remain simple (in fact, simplicity is born of depth of understanding).
When applying the text, be specific and concrete rather than generalised and abstract. For example, don’t only tell people that God hates idolatry (so don’t put anything else in God’s place). Almost everybody will say that God is the most important thing in their life—until you delve into how much they trust their money, or defend their reputation, or in practice prefer their leisure.