What the preacher should do when the sermon sucks — three tips for before heading to the pulpit

What does a pastor do when it’s Sunday and life has intruded so much during the week that there hasn’t been a chance to write a sermon? Or the sermon that has been written sucks and the pastor knows it?

As a pastor for almost 14 years who has had weeks that went out of control, leaving me with little to no time to prepare a sermon, I know what it’s like to face the Sunday deadline with next to nothing to show for it. And as a Christian who has sat and listened to sermons by pastors who have been in the same boat, I know how painful it can be to listen to someone wander all over the place, making little sense while mangling the Scriptures.

We’ve got options, folks. There is no need to subject the people of God to sucky, unprepared sermons.

1. Preach an old sermon of your own. 

It’s not necessary to write a new sermon for every Sunday. Really. You’re not a bad pastor or a bad Christian if you repeat something that was meaningful before.

For some reason, pastors think that our sermons are so good and so memorable that if we repeat anything that we’ve preached before that not only will we get caught (“Hey, pastor, you preached that same sermon seven years ago. I remember everything you say like it was yesterday, and I’m appalled that you would rehash a seven-year-old sermon like that.”) The fact is that most people can’t remember our sermons once they get home from worship. So, if a sermon is really good, it actually should be repeated. Perhaps not word-for-word, but if the content is important, it should be repeated until it’s begun to be lived by those listening to it.

The rule of thumb is that until a group of people begin using a concept in their own conversations, they haven’t interiorized it.

So, when you’ve had once of those weeks, pull from the best of what you’ve preached in the past. In fact, it would be smart to have your top ten sermons set aside for that very purpose.

2. Preach someone else’s sermon.

I haven’t done this myself, but a good friend used this advice to excellent effect with the church he served.

Jim was having a terrible few weeks. Life had crashed in on him and his family, and he was doing the best he could, but writing sermons (something he loves to do) just wasn’t happening. So, I mentioned the idea of preaching a great sermon from the past — Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Chrysostom, Augustine, Athanasius, Spurgeon, Barth, Santucci (joke). Well, he had done his doctorate on Alexander Whyte, so he pulled one of Whyte’s old sermons out and preached it. He began with a good introduction, explaining who Whyte was and why he was preaching this old sermon, and went for it. And the people loved it.

There are gems from the past that the people in our congregations would benefit from if they only heard them for themselves. A bit of editing and elaborating might be in order, but there’s a reason why these are classics.

It’s possible that a contemporary sermon by another pastor might do as well. That’s up to you. I’d stick with something old.

3. Simply read the Scriptures.

It’s amazing how well the Scriptures themselves speak to people. And it’s a shame that we generally encounter them only on the printed page and in tiny portions.

Half a dozen years ago, I was about to start a six-month series in the Sermon on the Mount. I had it laid out week-by-week and was about to launch into it when I realized how disconnected the whole thing would be by breaking it down into such small pieces. So, I decided to preach the actual Sermon on the Mount as a single sermon without any elaboration before launching into the series.

When I did, I simply preached the text from The Message version. And no, I didn’t just read it. I preached it. Yes, I was reading from a manuscript in front of me. But I read it as if it were my own sermon.

And it came alive!

People clapped afterward. And this was a pretty dry Presbyterian church.

But is that a surprise? These are the words of Jesus. This is the central gathering teaching of our Lord. These words have power. Why would be think that our comments about them would be any more powerful than these words which have been changing lives for the past 2,000 years?

About 25 years ago, I went to a Charlie Peacock concert with my not-yet wife. At one point in the concert, he started to read from 1 John. And he kept on reading. In fact, he read through the entirety of 1 John. Now, I didn’t get the impression that he intended to do so when he began. But the words of 1 John were so compelling that he couldn’t stop. And then he was done, finished with the whole thing.

I remember sitting there thinking, “I came to hear a guy sing some songs. But when he read those words from the Bible, I was hanging on every single one of them.”

One week, I had done my exegetical study early in the week. But when it came time to write the sermon, the rest of the week fell apart. There was a death and a few other unsavory happenings. So, when Sunday came, I explained to the congregation what had happened and then “ran the text,” reading a portion and then commenting on it. (I know that this is the basic method that some almost always use. Personally, I find it lazy, since it avoids the work of particularization — speaking this particular Word to this particular people.)

Before doing a series through Philippians, I did my own Message-like translation of Paul’s letter. So, instead of a sermon, I read it aloud. Again, an ovation at the end. People clapping for what God had revealed to them in the Scriptures, not for me and my translation ability.

When we don’t have the words to speak, all we need to do is let God’s Word speak for itself.

We’ve got options. So, really there is no excuse for a bad sermon. Repeat yourself. Repeat someone else. Or simply repeat the Scriptures themselves.