Seven Things that make a Sermon Rubbish!

Following on from this post on how to listen to a sermon, I thought that we needed to address the issue of how to listen to a particular type of sermon; the rubbish one. We’ll get to that I promise. But first let me suggest that, in my opinion, there are seven things that make a sermon rubbish. There’ll be more than that I’m sure. But how about this for starters!

It’s worth saying (in case there’s any doubt) that I have been, repeatedly am and inevitably will be guilty of some (if not all) of the things that follow. But it’s helpful to know what I’m trying to avoid even if I don’t always manage it!

1. A sermon is rubbish when it doesn’t explain the Bible

This ought to be fairly self evident. And so I won’t spend much time on this. But I assume that the reason we go to church is to hear God’s voice in the scriptures. We’re not interested in the random speculations or radical opinions of the preacher. We want to know what God thinks. And so if a sermon makes no attempt to explain the that’s been read, then it’s not doing what we’d expect it to be doing. And that’s rubbish!

2. A sermon is rubbish  when it’s hard to follow

If a sermon lacks clarity, simplicity and logic then it’s just so hard to get the gist of what’s being said. Those of us on the receiving end need to be taken through an argument bit by bit in a clear and simple way so that we see what’s going on. We don’t want to be impressed. We want to understand. Sometimes people preach as though they’re expecting us to do the final editing and put the sermon together ourselves. If it’s too involved and complicated then we get frustrated and just quit listening. And that’s rubbish!

3. A sermon is rubbish when it’s too dense

If a sermon has too much in it then people get crushed by the volume of material they’re supposed to take onboard. We just end up overwhelmed. I think back to a series I did about five years ago where I tried to summarise the whole Bible’s teaching in seven weeks. At the time I thought it was a bold and ambitious move. It was well intentioned; I thought we’d all benefit from an overview of the major topics in the Bible. Now I just think it was ill judged and poorly executed! It’s true that solid sermons can give us something to chew on. But they can also give us indigestion. And that’s rubbish!

4. A sermon is rubbish when it’s boring

One of my mentors in ministry used to say ‘there’s only one thing worse than heresy and that’s making the Bible boring’. He didn’t mean it, but I understand where he was coming from. It’s criminal if we take the breathed out word of God and use it to send people to sleep. If a sermon is uninspiring, uninteresting and unexciting the congregation will slowly lose the will to live! And that’s rubbish!

5. A sermon is rubbish when it uses inaccessible language

I love language. I think a well chosen word can add colour and feeling. My danger is that I would rather use a multiplicity of words where one will do! But it’s so easy to be doing so for the wrong things. We don’t want sermons that impress people with their use of words, skilful composition and rhetorical flourish. We want sermons that explain and apply the word of God in an unmistakable way. If a sermon is built too much on a commanding knowledge of the English vocabulary then it’ll only reach those that have swallowed a thesaurus. And that’s rubbish!

6. A sermon is rubbish when it lacks helpful illustration

An illustration is an analogy that helps us see the point in a different way. Those of us on the receiving end need not only an explanation of the truth but a demonstration of the truth. We need a ‘for instance’ or ‘it’s just like’ so that we can see clearly what’s being said. That said I’d rather have no illustration than bad illustration. But that’s a discussion for another time.If a sermon only deals in explanation and not illustration there’s a real danger that the penny never drops. And that’s rubbish!

7. A sermon is rubbish when it ignores the implications

Application is what the Bible is for. The application of a Bible passage concerns how it impacts our lives. We mustn’t let our sermons fly around in the upper atmosphere without bringing them into land. But as someone has said, ‘it’s safer to stay up in the clouds – hitting the ground hurts’. The ongoing presence of our sinful nature means that we’re predisposed to keeping the implications of God’s word at arm’s length. There’s no better way to do that than to keep the applications conceptual rather than actual. If a sermon is only ever the exploration of a concept or a theme and never actually shows how that concept or theme matters then it’s a theoretical lecture. It’s not a sermon. And that’s rubbish!

I have given more than my fair share of rubbish sermons. I don’t mean to. It just happens! I mentioned in a past blog post that I’ve probably spoken for longer than nine whole days at evening church in CCB. I dare not think for how much of that time I was rubbish! But I’d also like to think the percentages are improving all the time!

I’ve gone for seven. I won’t have covered all the bases. But that’s what the comments box is for! This could run. And run.

23 thoughts on “Seven Things that make a Sermon Rubbish!

  1. Kip' Chelashaw February 23, 2011 / 11:35 pm

    A sermon is rubbish when it tries to cover every theological doctrine in the text (which I think is another angle on your number 3). In other words, you just can’t get every theological nuance from one preach or as some wise crack once said every sermon would be judged as heretical for all the important truths it left unaddressed. As preachers, we need to remember that there are times when it is ok not to mention the atonement!

  2. Dex February 24, 2011 / 5:27 pm

    A sermon is rubbish when it doesn’t talk about Jesus…

    • theurbanpastor February 24, 2011 / 7:07 pm

      Would you believe me if I said I’d thought about having that as a separate point but instead thought that point 1 had it covered?! Would it, in your opinion, be overstating it if I was to suggest that to claim to teach the Bible without showing how it relates to Jesus and his gospel is not to teach the Bible?

      • Dex February 25, 2011 / 4:53 pm

        What’s wrong with overstating your point?! 🙂
        I think maybe if you had just included that sentence -‘to teach the Bible without showing how it relates to Jesus and his gospel is not to the Bible’ would have done the trick. Some people don’t know that…

  3. Phil C February 27, 2011 / 5:29 pm

    8. A sermon is rubbish when it is too long

    If the sermon is too long, the preacher makes it difficult for people to concentrate – especially when you get to the end, where everything comes together. It is especially difficult for people who don’t usually go to church and are not used to hearing a long talk about anything. And that’s rubbish!

    (I remember hearing my my first 20 minute sermon ten years ago, and I really struggled to keep track. My threshold has increased since then – but it makes me wonder what a guest thinks when he or she hears a half-hour sermon!)

    9. A sermon is rubbish when it makes the gospel boring

    If the sermon makes the gospel uninspiring, uninteresting or unexciting it is not reflecting the truth, and the congregation will quickly lose the will to live for Christ, or worse. And that’s rubbish!

    • theurbanpastor February 28, 2011 / 9:08 am

      Thanks Phil
      But what is too long? That’s an issue we’ve not really addressed. I suspect that it has something to do with the interplay between speaker and congregation. What works with one preacher in one congregation will not be the same as with another preacher in another congregation. It has to do, surely, with the appetite of the congregation to hear God’s word and, perhaps especially, the ability of a preacher to hold a crowd.
      You’re right to say that many newcomers to church aren’t used to a 20 minute monologue [however dialogical he attempts to be]. And yet they wouldn’t struggle to listen to a 90 minute set by Lee Mack. And so we mustn’t give up too easily on the potential for longer sermons. Us preachers need to work hard at making it easy to listen to God;s word. That has much to to do with clarity, simplicity and logic as well as learning to be more accomplished at working with the biblical genres.
      It’s striking that Mark Driscoll will rarely speak for less than an hour week by week in Seattle, where many of his listeners are newcomers. If the preacher is a good communicator then this is possible. And I’d go a stage further and say it’s desirable. Hearing sermons is not the only way that we hear God speak to us; we can study the scriptures on our own and so on. But if we conducted our human relationships in the way that we think it’s acceptable to conduct our heavenly relationship we’d be in big trouble. Can imagine the stick I’d get if I told my wife, Rosslyn, that she’s not allowed to speak for more than 20 minutes on a Sunday. There’d be some righteous kickback, I’ll wager! Justifiably so.
      Sure some preachers are hopeless communicators and the greatest blessing that they could bring to a congregation is to keep it short and sweet and sit down! I may be in that category! But we can train them and they can improve. And if a congregation has an appetite to hearing what God has to say to them, they can see past the slightly ropey communication skills because they so want to hear what God says.
      I remember some of the first serious Bible sermons that I heard. It was a sereis of four in Ezekiel. They were 50 miutes long and I couldn’t tell you now what was said. I’m not sure I could have told you then what was said. I’d only just discovered that there was an Ezekiel in the Bible! But i picked up form those sermons that God’s people were serious about God’s word. I’m not sure I’d have reached that conclusion if we’d given God the 20 minute brush off!
      I think I meant to cover your nine in my four!

      • Phil C February 28, 2011 / 1:30 pm

        I agree. It’s interesting that you offer Lee Mack and Driscoll as examples – I think a Driscoll sermon has a lot in common with a stand-up comedian’s set. I suspect that the venue (and seating!) at Driscoll’s sermons also has more in common with the O2 Arena than most churches!

        I’d be wary of holding up comedians as proof that people are happy to regularly sit through long talks, though. Comedians are supported by writers behind the scenes, and they might develop a new 90-minute set every six months or so, which is (usually) crafted to make it very easy to listen to. I doubt many comedians could, under their own steam, keep the same crowd engaged for half an hour every week throughout the year.

        (Could the comedians’ approach suggest a new approach to preaching? Where a whole staff team actively contributes to each sermon, like a comedian has a team of writers? That’s another discussion, but I’d be interested to see whether it works!)

        I think points 4 and 9 are related but different. Point 9 is, in my limited experience, a more common problem. I heard a while back about a preacher who uses the same few illustrations of the gospel again and again, to the point that his congregants could number them one to five. That made me sad.

  4. James Oakley February 28, 2011 / 12:41 pm

    Thanks Perks.

    Not sure about #2. I know what you mean – pointless obscurity because the preacher hasn’t done the work of achieving clarify doesn’t edify. Clear trumpet notes get the troops for battle.

    But: Jesus frequently taught in parables, and he gets under your skin and leaves you thinking about it long after you heard him. I wonder if certain congregational settings / certain types of biblical literature are not best served by leaving things too clear, neat and sown up. Narratives can’t be reduced to a few propositions – they need to work on us as stories. Some proverbs need to leave us pondering the riddle.

    The (wisdom) question is: How do you hold onto both. How do you leave God big enough to be a transcendent God, and yet make clear what he has revealed?

  5. Mark Heath February 28, 2011 / 7:24 pm

    Point 6 is the one I struggle most with. Makes me think I’m probably going to preach a couple of rubbish sermons this week. The reminder is helpful though and I will try to come up with some good illustrations this week.

    • theurbanpastor March 1, 2011 / 8:32 am

      That’s not what I’ve heard.
      Keep on keeping on bro!
      Love that solicitors sign BTW

  6. John Allister March 1, 2011 / 7:54 am

    A sermon is too long when the congregation get bored, or when the sermon would have had a better effect if it was shorter. This will vary from preacher to preacher and congregation to congregation.

    • theurbanpastor March 1, 2011 / 8:31 am

      Thanks John. I guess it’s hard to know how much of the congregation need to be bored before I know that I need to stop! I’m frequently amazed at the diverse comments I get from those who hear me. What to one person is a terrific sermon is to another too long and not well enough applied. Whilst I always want to make my critics my coaches I long ago gave up making people’s comments at the end of sermons determinative for the way I’d conduct my preaching ministry! I just couldn’t compute the conflicting data. I guess I’ve ended up trying to be faithful to the ‘audience of one’. If I can look God in the face at the end of a sermon and know that I’ve done my best to communicate His word with enthusiasm, the appropriate tone, exegetical accuracy and in the light of the person and work of Christ then I sleep like a Calvinist!

      • Lauri Moyle March 4, 2011 / 1:47 pm

        Does that mean that if you didn’t you would lie awake like an Armenian?

      • theurbanpastor March 4, 2011 / 1:52 pm

        Lauri, you mean Arminian, right?! Armenians belong to a geo-political entity. Arminians hold to a theological interpretation. I have no idea how Armenians sleep. And I have no idea how Arminians can sleep!

  7. Matt Woodley March 1, 2011 / 2:22 pm

    Hi Phil:

    Great post. I loved your seven things. That was a beautiful way to summarize a lot of material. Keep up the good work.

    Matt Woodley
    Managing Editor,

    • theurbanpastor March 1, 2011 / 2:33 pm

      Thanks for the warm words of appreciation.

    • Lauri Moyle March 4, 2011 / 1:48 pm

      These are excellent. Particularly the whole council of god point and making much of Jesus.

  8. Dan K April 6, 2011 / 2:22 am

    (“If I can look God in the face at the end of a sermon and know…”)

    Can anyone look on God’s face? Moses had to wear a veil after just catching a glimpse of His backside.

    “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” John 1:18

    Just thought I’d throw in a little juke there. Great stuff.

    Something that has been close to my heart lately:
    A rubbish sermon does not move people.

    “If you would move me with your preaching, or with your praying, or with your singing, first be moved yourself.” -Alexander Whyte

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