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Simplistic, Useless Sermons – Why Does It Happen?

Drew Smith, ordained Baptist minister, wrote recently about shallow sermonizing (at his blog , Wilderness Preacher, and at It’s dangerous for me to complain about useless sermons, since I deliver a hopefully useful one every week – I’m very vulnerable to examination on this issue. In fact, I was told one Sunday morning not too long ago, “You ain’t no preacher!” (Actually, the guy managed to turn that into a compliment, but it’s still a pretty clear statement.)

But that doesn’t mean I can’t say what I think on this.

Smith’s initial complaint is

… that many sermons I hear are so simplistic and unimaginative … they only scratch the surface of a biblical text, a theological idea or an ethical question.

From what I’ve experienced, and from what I hear, I have to agree.

But WHY? That’s really what I want to know. WHY? We’ve got an awesome message in our Gospel, and an incredible resource in our Bible, and vast additional riches of resource in all of world literature, history, and contemporary life. How can we avoid being substantial and interesting!?

I know. You can interest some of the people all the time, and all the people some of the time, but you can’t interest all the people all the time. Still, I agree with Drew Smith. It has to be possible to interest more folks more deeply and regularly, and to do so with real substance that has strong potential to increase the influence of Christ in their and our own lives.

It is easily argued that one reason there are so “many” “simplistic and unimaginative” sermons is that “many” of the congregations where these “many” sermons are preached seem to want, and sometimes insist on, simplistic, cliche-ridden preaching that disturbs nothing. Keep life – at least the religious side of it – simple. That is no doubt sometimes true.

And of course it’s easier for us preachers to prepare such sermons. Even if we “work hard” on our sermons, we can still avoid the even more difficult ongoing personal struggle that is prerequisite to the kind of preaching Smith is missing.

He feels that a key root of the problem is precisely this lack of struggle on the preacher’s part with the text, idea, or doctrine – and by implication with him/herself in the light of these resources. If the Scripture has not yet exegeted and revised us who intend to preach it, how do we find the gall to imagine we can adequately exegete and apply it to others?

… pastors often do not struggle with the theological questions inherent in the biblical texts, preferring to link together simplistic statements that only scratch the surface of a passage. They approach the text with theological assumptions and read those assumptions into the text instead of allowing the text to challenge their prescribed theological beliefs.

What a terrible accusation!

It amounts to this – preachers are using their positions to misuse the Bible in order to comfort themselves and their congregations about their spiritual, doctrinal, and Scriptural superiority. “See, we have it right.” (Or, “I have it right.”) “Here’s another passage and cute story to prove it.” Doesn’t that get awfully close to what a false prophet must be?

The problem is, that gives us false doctrine, which gives us false spirituality, which gives us an often well-deserved negative rather than positive impact upon and reputation in the world.

People who are seeking primarily confirmation for their current lives are comfortable with prophets who provide that. But people who are struggling with life and spirituality are going to fall asleep under such preaching, or just leave and never return.

I suspect that “many” congregations could be trained to hear and appreciate something more substantial. After all, it’s our nature and the Spirit’s agenda that we be intrigued by things that really matter to us. But such re-training can be uncomfortable, long-term work for both pastor and congregation.

One of the nicest compliments given me about my preaching was from a visiting missionary who had heard a great variety of preachers over many years in many settings. He told me he can tell when a congregation is used to actually listening to their minister – and the congregation where I was pastor was, he said, clearly used to actually listening.

Or as a young woman told my wife recently, she almost inevitably falls asleep early on during sermons, which distresses her because she knows she needs the spiritual nourishment. But, she says, she and her fiance like to come here because they are both nourished and kept awake.

I want it to be more strongly and consistently so in this church. I wish it to be that way in every church. Imagine how much wiser and more spiritually healthy our nation would be! Because, after all, the necessary truth is usually there. It’s just inaccessible to the people.

Smith pins down some other reasons for this “blandness” of preachers, like the felt need of many preachers “to be stringently dogmatic” – ooh, that’s a big one! – or to be pulpit therapists.

… some sermons take on a quasi-psychological tenor, serving as nothing more than self-help sessions that do not provoke us to think of Jesus’ call to discipleship … Jesus’ call to seek God’s kingdom through service and sacrifice.

This is a big issue with me.

I don’t pretend to be one of the world’s great preachers. I’ve been told I’m not a preacher at all. But I do know that on Sunday mornings here we work hard to talk honestly about God and ourselves; we give the Scriptures great prominence and we treat what the text says with careful honesty and respect. Some people, I bet, really want that.

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