Are Sermons Too Predictable?
As of August 2020, I have preached almost 300 sermons at Mayhill Baptist, the church I have had the joy of pastoring since April 2017. Before COVID-19, we had morning and evening services, so I got to pad my sermon stats pretty quickly. During COVID-19, we have temporarily paused our evening services, but I have increased my weekly sermon total by one because I record the sermon on Friday and preach it again at 9:30 AM and 11 AM.
I preach my Friday sermon in front of an iPhone (turned landscaped, of course) on a music stand on the Lord’s Supper table with a tie-clip to keep it level. I preach the 9:30 AM service in front of members 65-years-old and up. I preach the 11 AM service in front of members 65-years-old and below.
The responsiveness (or lack thereof) between the three identical sermons has taught me a little something about getting into a rut. The iPhone offers no response, of course, but the differing contexts of the 9:30 AM and 11 AM services provide the means to try out a few things.
After a few weeks of preaching the same sermon three times, I received a crash-course in the school of “practice makes perfect.” Friday became the dress rehearsal (though I could get away with waist-up suits and waist-down pajamas), 9:30 AM became opening night, and 11 AM became the final curtain.
If you have ever been to the theatre, you know the relief that comes when that curtain drops for the last time. Let me be frank: you are sick and tired of the same lines and are ready for something else. While I will never tire of God’s Word’s richness, by the third run of a sermon, I am beyond ready for the next pericope!
Enter: the rut.
While the three run-throughs allowed me to hone in my sermon, it also gave me a glimpse of being in a rut that is easy to miss week-by-week. Thus, I begin to try some different ways to preach the same text each week. Friday was pretty-well scripted, but I would tweak a few of the elements on Saturday, and then again between the 9:30 AM and 11 AM services.
I might start with an illustration for one while beginning with the Scripture reading in another. I might notice a story failed to connect at 9:30 AM, so I would change it in the 11 AM worship gathering. The substance, structure, and spirit of the text would remain the same, but changing the delivery style or order of elements has offered a variety I plan to keep when we return to our regular schedule.
As I changed, I noticed our members became more engaged. Instead of routinely expecting what was coming next, they seemed to hang on every word more than ever. Changing the tertiary elements of my sermons made them stick instead of leaving this preacher stuck in a rut.
While I did not realize it over the past three years with Mayhill Baptist, my sermons were predictable. I was in a rut and did not know it. However, the audibles called on Saturday and at 10:30 on Sunday helped me try a few things to pull my tires out of the muddy sludge of predictability.
So, preacher, as you preach the unchanging Word, do not hesitate to change your delivery or style to keep your sermons fresh. Keep the substance, structure, and spirit true to the text, but be willing to occasionally change your methods to keep from getting stuck in a rut. Here are a few ideas to prime to pump:
1. Change your intro.
Maybe you begin with an illustration or a story, or perhaps you jump right into the text. If you start the same way each week, consider trying a new way to introduce your sermon.
2. Change your cadence.
One of our members describes my sermons as “drinking from a firehose.” That is because I start fast, settle in fast, and finish fast because there is an expectation of finishing at noon. Mix up the speed and tweak your tone inflections for emphasis.
3. Change your illustrations.
I have run countless marathons and ultramarathons. Conversations or experiences on the courses have created quite the bank of stories to share, but if all of my stories are about running, they become far too predictable. Be willing to pull from a variety of sources to keep your illustrations fresh.
4. Change your vocabulary.
Take some time to listen to yourself, particularly if you do not manuscript. Are there words or phrases you overuse? Consider finding new ways to say old truths—be creative with your vocabulary!
5. Change your outline.
Now, “text-driven” preachers know the structure of the text dictates their outline. However, if you have gotten into a habit of an intro, three points, and a poem, you can spice things up a bit by deleting the sermon template off your computer and starting fresh each week.
There may be other elements worth changing, but the key is to stay fresh, not become predictable. Pastors, preach with passion and preach the Word, and watch the Lord do His work.
Matt Henslee (@mhenslee) is the pastor of Mayhill Baptist Church in Mayhill, New Mexico, D.Min student of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and author of a few books, including Evangelize to Revitalize and Text-Driven Invitation.