A pastor I worked with once gave me some advice. “You’ll always have a Sunday when you have a dog,” he told me, referring to a sermon that bombs. “When that happens, walk your dog proud.”
That may not sound like good advice. Actually, it was some of the best advice I’ve ever received in ministry. Because behind it is the assurance that if your sermon bombs, you’re in good company.
We all have times when our preaching is just off. The illustrations fall flat. The main points don’t gel with the audience. Even the best communicators among us have bombed. And that can be reassuring. You’re not perfect. No one is.
But what do you do when your sermon bombs? Like my pastor friend told me, you must walk the “dog” proudly. He meant that you keep your head up and your confidence in the Word. And there’s always next week, right?
That’s great advice, but bouncing back is more about how to weather the storm. A seasoned pastor needs to know how to face the winds head-on. It takes more than confidence. It takes some strategy.
Why did your sermon bomb? That’s the first question you’ll want to ask. But it comes later, after you’ve stepped off the platform. Take some time to analyze your message, but don’t over-analyze it. Ask some tough but fair questions.
First of all, you might have failed in this message because of a lack of proper sermon prep. How much time did you spend researching and writing? Was it enough? Maybe not. What happened in your week that got you out of your normal routine? And how much of the preparation did you leave to the last minute?
Answering the previous questions can help you avoid the next bomb as you plan your schedule better and stay on top of sermon prep.
But you might also have bombed because of a lack of practice. The next week, take your sermon notes and read them, out loud, before getting up to speak. You’ll find that you can avoid a lot of stress later if you are willing to endure an hour or so beforehand in a run-through.
Maybe your sermon bombed due to a lack of passion. What I mean is, your heart just wasn’t in the topic. When you planned out your sermon calendar, you might have had good ideas. But the closer you got to Sunday, the less excited you were about it. That’s normal and natural.
When your sermon bombs, keep your head up and your confidence in the Word.
Maybe you bombed because of a lack of sleep. Or maybe it was a stomachache, a sore throat, allergies or a cold. There are a number of physical issues that can lead to a bad sermon. There are also spiritual ones. Were you “prayed up” and ready to preach? If not, take that as a reminder to get your spirit ready.
What to Do?
While looking back at a sermon can be helpful for later, what do you do in the moment? If you feel the wheels coming off as you’re preaching, you have to act quickly. Having a game plan may help keep you on track. Below are some things to consider.
First of all, take a breath. Just pause a moment and get yourself on the right page. If you’re preaching from notes, take a look and make sure you’re at the right spot. It may be helpful to repeat the last main point or idea to give yourself some time. I’ve found that just taking a second helps me relax and can keep a sermon from spiraling out of control.
If you do find yourself preaching a bad sermon, and can identify it quickly enough, you may be able to make adjustments on the fly. What I mean is, as you’re going step by step through your notes, you may get the sense that your preparation failed you. These applications aren’t as concrete as you had hoped. The exposition is not as tight as it could have been.
But you may have something to fall back on. For instance, has God been revealing something to you in your personal Bible study? And can you make that connection to the text at hand? Then, by all means, veer from your prepared notes and speak from the heart.
Another thing to keep in mind is the audience’s response. Often, we think we’ve done a worse job than we really have. One of my mentors once confessed he never felt like his sermons were “home runs,” although I thought every one of them was great.
We can misread the people in the seats, believing they are missing our words when they are actually concentrating deeply. Don’t discount the fact that your words are resonating with someone that day.
And that’s the thing. As preachers, we often give ourselves high expectations because of the nature of the words we speak. But ultimately, we are merely mouthpieces for God. We are His representative on that day. It is the Holy Spirit who moves in people’s hearts, not us.
If you feel like your sermon is bombing, make sure to stay in tune with the Spirit. He can use even the most boring message, the most mundane illustration or the most ill-prepared outline to change lives.
Finally, remember that a bad sermon does not a bad preacher make. I know you always want to preach at a high level, not out of ego but out of desire to fulfill God’s call on your life. Rest assured that if you commit to excellence in preparation and delivery of God’s Word, the Lord will consider you a good and faithful worker, no matter the outcome.
So, the next time your sermon happens to bomb — and there probably will be a next time — lean in to the One who called you.