Kids do say the darndest things, and with decades of pulpit experience, the Rev. Joe McKeever has learned that these revelatory remarks about sermons often happen just after church.
In one case, a parent shared a question from a perplexed child who struggled with a complex McKeever sermon. Thus, the 7-year-old asked: “Why does Pastor Joe think we need this information?”
That’s blunt. But not as blunt as what happened to a friend, as McKeever recounted in a recent essay, “Boring Sermons: We all have them from time to time.”
This pastor said a family from his church attended a Friday football game, and during halftime, their preschooler asked why students chanted “BORING!” at the visiting marching band. “Her mother explained that sometimes students will do that when they feel the other band is doing poor work,” wrote McKeever. The mother added: “It tells them they stink.”
The child remembered this and shouted “BORING!” during the next Sunday sermon.
Pastors need honest feedback from time to time, stressed the 83-year-old McKeever, who — in addition to decades in various kinds of Southern Baptist ministry — for 20 years was a member National Cartoonists Society.
“One of the problems with being a pastor is that we rarely hear anyone else preach,” he said, reached by telephone. “We do what we do in the pulpit, over and over, and it’s easy to lose any sense of standards.
“Many preachers lose the ability to listen to themselves.. … They end up telling people things that they don’t need, things that they didn’t want, that they don’t understand and, worst of all, that they don’t find inspiring.”
It’s almost impossible to clearly define what makes a sermon “bad,” since congregations contain people with radically different interests and tastes, said McKeever. A sermon that’s “boring” to one listener might seem “deep” and “insightful” to another.
But there are valid reasons that believers often share tips — “101 Things To Do During a Dull Sermon” is one book title — about how to cope with their preacher having an off day.
First of all, wrote McKeever: “Pray for the pastor. Pray for the people. Pray the preacher will do better next time. … And watch what you say to him after the service ends. You are not allowed to say something like, ‘Another snoozer, Preacher’ or ‘Not one of your better ones, Brother Tom.’ Nope. Do not do it.” In other words, “Don’t make matters worse.”
Meanwhile, there are common mistakes that quickly lead to “BORING!” sermons. After decades of advising preachers, in person and in his writings, McKeever warned pastors against:
Assuming that anecdotes about their own lives and faith journeys are appropriate. “It’s important to tell stories when preaching,” he told me. “Personal details can be interesting and relevant. But a steady stream of that kind of content week after week can turn into an ego thing.”
Preparing sermons that would impress seminary professors — but are likely to fail with people who are struggling with issues at work, home, school and in the rest of their daily lives. “If you spend lots and lots of time describing why a specific Greek word is so important, three people in the pews may think that’s wonderful, while everyone else is rolling their eyes.”
Forgetting to clearly state, at least once, a sermon’s big idea. “It’s like reading a newspaper column and thinking, ‘When are you going to say what you’re trying to say,’” he said. “Not all the extras. Not all the mind-numbing details. Not the stuff the writer thought was interesting, without thinking about the readers. What’s your point?”
Failing to deliver a message that is inspiring. McKeever noted that when Abraham Lincoln was asked if he liked a popular preacher’s sermon, he was said to have replied: “Not very much. … He did not ask me to do anything great.”
Sermons do not need to be funny or entertaining, he said, even in an age in which many preachers wear wireless microphones and pace on brightly lit stages like stand-up comics.
“What sermons must have is a touch of God in them,” said McKeever. “A sermon has to say something inspiring about Jesus — not about the preacher. … If you can make Jesus Christ boring, you’re doing something wrong.”
Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.