The Heresy of Boring Preaching
Which is worse? To be a boring preacher or a heretical one?
Good-hearted graduates of our college will answer ‘a heretical one’, and they would be correct. What they will almost certainly be wrong about is how close-run a contest it actually is.
All godly preachers want to be known for their faithfulness to scripture. Others may teach what ‘itching ears’ want to hear, but we preach the Bible—whether our listeners like it or not, we will preach the truth.
Now, of course, this aim is nothing but commendable. We should preach God’s Word in all its fullness. And, of course, heresy is nothing to be winked at. If our faith means anything it all, it means that there are eternal consequences to the content of our preaching. A message that distorts the truth and misleads a congregation is as destructive an action as can be performed. Heresy is the worst.
However, many preachers are so overcome by the fear of being incorrect from the pulpit that they think they have performed their duty as preacher simply by avoiding error. But in preaching, as in most other things, doing no wrong is not the same as doing right.
It seems to me that churches are emptying in many parts of the world because it is no longer culturally expected for good people to be in the pews on a Sunday. They don’t have to be there, and so we as ministers no longer have a captive audience. If we are boring, it is now socially acceptable for our hearers to vote with their feet.
Of course it is not good that people lack commitment to being in church, and of course it is not good for ministers to succumb to the pressure to become showmen, and of course it is ultimately up to the Lord whether people respond to the message appropriately. But none of that absolves the preacher of his responsibility to his calling.
We say that we believe that scripture is the Word of God given in history for us. More than this, we say that by the Holy Spirit, hearers of that historical message can experience it as God’s word personally to them. How can God’s book be boring? How can God speaking be boring? The Bible is at once beautiful and deep and confrontational. The problem is not with the material. With rare exceptions (I’ll give you the genealogies and some of the legal material), boring preaching is your fault. If you’ve let people think that the Bible is boring or irrelevant to them, have you done any less damage than a workaday heresy would have?
There are many ways to be boring, I suppose, but the two most common kinds of boring sermon in my experience are as follows:
Shallow sermons: Perhaps my least favourite kind of sermon is one in which the preacher has nothing to say that a perceptive reader didn’t already notice when the text was read out at the start, but still takes 30 minutes to say it. Even worse is the situation when the preacher has merely scanned through the passage and picked up some of the keywords, at which point he proceeds to deliver a banal word-study of each of them. Understanding the Bible deeply enough to be able to understand how the parts connect, or why each element is there, or what it was saying to its original audience—understanding not just what it says but why as well—all of this takes a lot of work and a lot of thought. But doing this work is necessary to understanding God’s Word to the original hearer, and so it is necessary to communicating God’s Word to the present hearer. Without it, sermons are vague and generalised and shallow (if not misdirected altogether). It is usually painfully obvious when a preacher stands up with only a foggy perception of the text and his own meandering thoughts to share—when he has nothing urgent to say. It might be ‘Bible-based’, but is it the Word of God?
Hearer-oblivious sermons: The other major way of deceiving your audience into thinking that the Bible is dull is to disregard your hearer completely. I have often been the best example of a boring preacher, chiefly when I pack the talk full of difficult or involved content that a listener has little or no chance of absorbing, or when I get so precious about my finely chosen wording written in my study that I insist on reading it out word-for-word (usually at twice the reasonable speed). You cannot say everything that needs to be said; you must only say what the hearer is able to hear.
More than this, the preacher must remember that preaching is a spiritual battle—every time we stand up to speak it is a contest for the attention of our hearers. With every introduction you need to answer for yourself and tell your hearer why they need to listen. With every point you need to ask how the text addresses your hearer. When you apply the text, you need to say what the text would say if it were written to your audience—enthuse them with the hopes that the text gave to its first hearers; confront them with the challenges with which it confronted the first hearers.
Bible-less preaching (even when it connects well with the hearer) shows contempt for the office of preacher; heresy shows contempt for the Word of God. True faithfulness in the pulpit requires that the Word of God is grasped by—and itself grasps—your hearer.