Writing those posts has involved some painful soul-searching. I’ve come to the conclusion that I preach rubbish sermons. Not all the time, but from time to time. Deep down I know when I have. And, because our church is discerning, they know it as well. But they’re gentle and they knew long before I told them, how to profit from a rubbish sermon!
But, so as not to try their patience too much, I’ve identified some of the contributory factors that cause this unintended consequence!
1. I preach rubbish sermons when I’ve been mentally distracted
Lots of things distract me from the task of actually sitting down and preparing and writing a sermon. The e-mail inbox currently has 233 unanswered e-mails. I have no idea how many of those are spam. Then there’s Facebook. Sure, it’s only a mental break inserted into a concerted period of intense concentration. But you’d be surprised how enthralling someone’s pictures from their time in Luxemburg can be when rigorous thought is the alternative! And then there’s blogging on why I preach rubbish sermons! Occasionally I leave the study to head for the kitchen table. I don’t have the internet down there. The volumes of cookery books hold no attraction to me. The golf ball doesn’t run so easily over the lino as it does over the carpet in my study. And so on.
In short, like many people, I don’t need a whole load of encouragement to keep away from the mental effort required to prepare good sermons. It’s easier not to think than it is to think. And like some, I find that an imminent deadline can focus the mind wonderfully, which is why I’m often up early on a Sunday morning. I’ve tried to change. But I’m deadline driven. And I’m an old dog who sees no attraction in new tricks. And so the final edited sermon script can come quite late. And that’s OK. As long as it’s edited. But the real issue is how much work has gone into the text work prior to that final script. That’s why the real battle isn’t at the end at the week; it’s at the start. I need to get to the text early on and let it percolate throughout my week. Trouble is that Monday is staff meeting morning and a whole load falls out of that. Then there’s Ministry Matters to prepare for. And then there’s the Apprenticeship workshop and so on. It’s the preparation time that gets squeezed. And that has consequences. And so the key thing is to avoid being distracted from, as Paul calls it, reflection (2 Timothy 2:7).
2. I preach rubbish sermons when I’ve been physically exhausted
Nothing works properly when I’m tired. And that’s especially true about my brain. I need it both to prepare and to preach. But I especially need it when I’m preparing. I need to think. Hard. If I’m physically exhausted then I can’t expect to be able to mentally engage. But I need my brain to observe what the text says, interpret what the means and apply what the text implies.
I can remember back to the time when our younger two kids would repeatedly wake during the night. There was something worse about interrupted sleep than insufficient sleep. It was exhausting. And it meant that I went into everyday feeling spent before I’d even started. I dread to think what my sermons were like during that period. I’ve looked back at some and I don’t think I’ll be using them again! There are seasons to life and I’m grateful to God that He gave us that experience of sleeplessness. It taught us to depend on him, it taught us perseverance and it’s given me some insight into other people’s struggles. But it was tough and I need to be sharp and mentally switched on if I’m going to prepare well. Mercifully we don’t have to struggle with interrupted sleep anymore. Now the issue is not my children’s sleep patterns but mine. I’m ill disciplined at the end of an evening. I find that after an evening meeting whether that’s a Bible study an evangelistic course or just a ministry group I need some down time. I think I need to switch off in front of Newsnight but what I really need is to go to sleep!
3. I preach rubbish sermons when I’ve been emotionally preoccupied
This affects me at the preparation stage. I find it hugely difficult to concentrate if there are things hanging over me. It might be an inappropriate remark that I let slip, it might be a disgruntled e-mail that I’ve received, it might be the thought of an imminent awkward pastoral conversation or it might be the gnawing frustration of someone who’s not doing what I might reasonably expect from them. I find those things emotionally draining. They play on my mind. And in one sense I’m glad of that. If I was unperturbed by those sorts of issues then I’d be pretty unfeeling. I might come across as cold and dispassionate. And who wants that in a Minister! The upside of sensitivity to emotional angst is that I’m sympathetic (in principle if not in practice) but the downside is that I get derailed. Criticism hits me hard and unsettles me. Confrontation is not something that I look forward to. And so rather than thinking hard about the sermon, I’m writing e-mails in my head, rehearsing what I’m going to say or phoning people up to take a second opinion. There’s something to be said for being able to park issue with the Lord and move on. I find that emotional preoccupation affects my ability to think straight about the text in front of me.
4. I preach rubbish sermons when I’ve been spiritually disengaged
The single biggest contributory factor to my rubbish sermons is my spiritual state. If I’m in good shape then even an undercooked sermon can be delivered to good effect because it matters to me. If I’m in poor shape then even a thoroughly well prepared, exegetically precise and hermeneutically correct sermon will fail to hit the spot. You may as well get the devil to preach. Not quite. But you get my point. Sure, if the Lord can use shysters like Jephthah and Samson then he can use me and my preaching, even if I’m at a really low ebb. I guess I was one of many who’d say that they were greatly helped by Roy Clements in my student years. But that’s no reason to continue to be spiritually shabby.
But when Christ means little to me then the word that testifies to him will mean little also. When I’m spiritually disengaged, the spiritual life is devoid of interest and that’ll come out in preaching. It’ll affect the passion with which I approach God’s word, God’s people and the task of helping them understand the implications of what He’s said. If it doesn’t really matter to me then that’ll come across. And I can’t expect t to matter to anyone else. And a congregation full of people for whom spiritual things don’t really matter isn’t a great place to be! Churches need their spiritual leaders to be in good spiritual shape.
But it’s a constant battle to prioritise my own personal devotional life rather than CCB’s congregational life. The latter always seems the more urgent pressing need. I go to bed every night without completing the work that needs to be done. And so I get up with a ‘to do’ list already formed in my head. It’s easier to concentrate on that than my quiet time. Or is this only me? The danger is that I think that I can go through a day without a proper devotional time in God’s word and it won’t be catastrophic. And it won’t be. But if that becomes a settled conviction a day can turn into a week and so on. And that’s catastrophic. But church ministry doesn’t work like that, does it. I don’t feel that I can turn up to the Church Prayer Meeting without something to say. But I could and it’d be OK. I’d love to have the courage to say one time, ‘I’m sorry that I haven’t got an exposition tonight but I thought it was more important to read the scriptures and pray!’ I honestly don’t think it’d cause a ripple; other than applause.