In the military realm, a dud describes a device that fails to detonate. Generally, a dud, like a bad blind date or a string of faulty Christmas lights, is something that fails to work properly. Having preached regularly for close to forty years, I can assure you that I have delivered my share of sermonic duds. In fact, any preacher who preaches regularly is subject to the inevitable dud dilemma. Therefore, it is reasonable and appropriate for him to consider how to fix it. The next time you find yourself in the doldrums of a post-dud preaching funk, consider the following diagnostic dud-fixers.
1. The Incubation Factor
Did you spend sufficient time praying over, thinking over and mulling over the implications of your preaching text? Proper preparation for preaching demands time. The myriad of demands on a pastor’s time and the subtle temptation to fritter it away can short-circuit meaningful preparation. A key part of preparation is preaching the text to yourself. Years ago, while listening to a Chuck Swindoll sermon, I heard him issue a warning that I haven’t forgotten: “Beware of the danger of trafficking in unlived truth.” Failing to understand and apply the truth of a biblical text to your own life before preaching to others is akin to a cook setting the heat on low and pulling the pie out of the oven after a few minutes. The result, at best, is a half-baked product. Heed the wise encouragement of John Stott when he wrote: “The best sermons we ever preach to others are those we have first preached to ourselves.” John Stott, The Challenge of Preaching (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 54.
2. The Articulation Factor
Did you explain what the text is saying with clear and concise words? Be careful regarding the use of “I think,” “I feel” or “I believe” as you preach. These personal qualifiers may indicate that you have elevated personal speculation above biblical revelation. Determine to let the content of the text itself drive the functional element of explanation in your sermon. As you do this, aim for an economy of words and avoid the danger of loading your sermon with unnecessary technical jargon. Consider the wise counsel of Robert Dabney on this matter: “The sensible hearer will justly regard the unnecessary reference to learned authors, the citation of the original languages, the employment of the technicalities of hermeneutics, the quoting of erroneous explanations for the purpose of refuting them, as designed to display yourselves rather than the truth. The able expounder exhibits not the processes, but the results, of his learning.” Robert L. Dabney, Evangelical Eloquence (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1999), 161.
3. The Application Factor
Are your applications too general? Are they warranted by the text you are preaching? Preachers frequently employ applications which are biblical but that do not flow directly out of the text from which they are preaching. The result is that application in their sermons becomes marked by lameness, sameness, and tameness. Text-driven application flows directly out of the text being preached. It anchors the timeless truth of the text in the daily lives of hearers with specificity.
4. The Unification Factor
Examine your sermon carefully. Do you find in it a fundamental unity? Does it have a unifying theme? Does it have a clear and concise main idea or thesis? Diagnostic questions like these may lead you to realize that you are trying to do too much in one sermon and are thereby left with many meaningful strands of thought that lack a unifying principle. Dabney, writing about unity in the sermon, advocates a severe simplicity in verbal expression. Dabney, Evangelical Eloquence, 293. One of the key factors that contributes to a sermon’s unity is its main idea or thesis. This is a single sentence that summarizes the sermon. Often, it is best conveyed through the pattern of subject (what is true) plus complement (what to do).
5. The Decentralization Factor
Because you are a steward of the mysteries of God (1 Cor. 4:1-2) and not a manufacturer of those mysteries, give priority to being a faithful steward of that which the Lord has entrusted you. Remember that your ministry and your preaching are not about you. Self and all its sentiments of both superiority and inferiority should be subordinated to God and His gospel. A centralized focus on what you think and what others may think must be replaced by a radically God-centered perspective. He is the supernatural source, substance, and goal of your preaching ministry. This perspective led Paul to rejoice in the proclamation of Christ in every circumstance (Phil. 1:15-18). Are you too concerned with immediate visible fruits of your preaching? Do you have an inordinate obsession with positive feedback to your preaching? Remember the promise of Isaiah 55:10-11: His word will not return to Him empty. Paul understood that. Maybe you need to understand it better. Many years ago an aged farmer in America, Luke Short, recorded an account of his conversion. He noted that one day he came under conviction as he recalled a sermon from John Flavel that he had heard as a boy some eighty-five years earlier in England before sailing to America. John Flavel, The Mystery of Providence (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1963), 11. Offer your best to the Lord and trust Him providentially to do what only He can do, like harvesting the crop from a seed planted even eighty-five years earlier! He continues to do the same today, even with your duds.
While all of us would prefer to launch our Sunday sermon, watch it soar to new homiletical heights and land it smoothly with a stirring conclusion, the fact is that, from our perspective, it doesn’t happen every week. Don’t despair. Persevere in your preaching to the glory of God. He has been fixing duds for generations!
Matthew McKellar is Professor of Preaching at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.