Why sermons bore us

August 26, 2011

Like other teachers of preaching, I listen to a lot of sermons, sometimes a dozen in a single day. I have noticed that this fact rarely evokes covetous sighs from my faculty colleagues, many of whom imagine a daily regimen of multiple homilies as akin to endless trips to the periodontist.

Contrary to expectations, though, I find that helping students preach for the first time carries the excitement of teaching skydiving to beginners. There is always that telltale widening of the eyes as they stand in the open bay of the pulpit feeling the wind whip by, staring into the depths below and suddenly becoming aware of what they are about to do as you tap them on the shoulder and say, "Go!"

Classroom adventures notwithstanding, for many people the words boredom and sermon are a proper pair, like horse and carriage. Pulpit search committees almost always top their wish lists with "good preacher" and report that their searches lead them through dry and waterless places. Last year, Monsignor Mariano Crociata, secretary-general of the Italian Bishops' Conference, made a splash on the pages of the Vatican's L'Osservatore Romano when he slammed dull preachers. "Too often," he complained, "sermons are just boring mush."

News? Maybe, but it's old news. In his book Preaching for Today, Clyde E. Fant surveys church history for attitudes toward sermons and finds the centuries littered with complaints about sermonic humdrum. When a woman in the Middle Ages was rebuked from the pulpit for gossiping, she mounted a counterattack. Pointing at the preacher, she retorted, "Indeed, sir, I know the one who's been doing the most babbling!"

The intriguing puzzle to me is not why centuries of churchgoers have carped about boring sermons, but why it is that sermons often seem so much more boring than they really are, objectively measured. It's been said that 99 out of 100 people are interesting once you get to know them, and the one who's not is interesting by virtue of being the exception. So it is for sermons. It is actually rare to find a sermon completely devoid of inspiration or creativity, yet sermon has become a word like politics, a noble term with a tarnished reputation. People who remain alert through an NPR report on agricultural reforms in the Sudan or who are all eyes and ears for a half-hour pitch on QVC for zircon earrings become testy the moment a sermon overflows the banks of their endurance.


Some might say that the sermonic genre has outrun its usefulness. It's too hierarchical, too linear and too slow for a fast-paced, visually oriented Twitter and Google+ culture. That argument might be persuasive if charges of preaching's obsolescence hadn't been raised and dropped so often over the years. Also, there is the curious fact that the American sermon, after gradually shrinking for decades to fit diminishing attention spans, is getting a bit longer nowadays, and it is the electronically savvy churches with their longer teaching-oriented "messages," so appealing to the wireless generation, that are beefing up the average.

Ironically, much of the snickering about boring sermons comes not because we expect so little but because we have hoped for so much. Barth once described preaching as happening in the context of one urgent question hanging in the air: "Is it true? Is God present?" Perhaps more muted in our time than in Barth's, the question nevertheless endures, and a deep hunger persists for a word from beyond us, a word from the Lord, a word that can gather us up and transform us, a trustworthy word, a word that can both judge the increasingly slippery and deceptive words of our public discourse and call our shared language to more redemptive purposes.

If there is no such word, then we are left to ourselves—our boring selves. Walter Benjamin once recounted the story of a 19th-century Paris neurologist whose patient was complaining of boredom, of a debilitating ennui. The physician performed a thorough physical examination. "There's nothing wrong with you," pronounced the doctor. "Just try to relax—find something to entertain you. Go see Deburau some evening, and life will look different to you," said the physician, referring to a popular French comic and mime.

"Ah dear sir," responded the patient. "I am Deburau."

We are all Deburau, weary of our own amusements. We joke about boring sermons, but often it is we who are boring—and bored. We say that sermons have bored us when actually they have disappointed us, failing to be the alternative word we need, failing to be the speech that arises not from our own meager entertainments but from the life of the Spirit. "We are bored," said Benjamin, "when we don't know what we are waiting for." One thing we are waiting for is for preachers who feel the strong wind, who sense the heights above them and the abyss below and take a deep breath and preach a life-changing gospel.


Different ways we learn.

Psychology is not all wet on their findings. It has been discovered there are several different ways people learn and relate to more effectively. Here are some of them I can remember: spacial relationships (not from a sermon), musical relationships (may or may not be helpful with a sermon), touch relationships (not from a sermon), logical relationships (possibly from a sermon), audio-verbal relationships (sermons), group learning experiences (sermons), solitary experiences (not from a sermon), putting pieces of a puzzle together after looking at the pieces first (possibly from a sermon), interactive or social relationships (not from a sermon), written relationships (reading, possibly from a sermon). The more ways you can address the different ways a group of persons can relate to and understand effectively, the more chance they will actually learn something useful they can relate to. The class I went to that taught this allowed one participant to continue weaving while listening to the lessons. This person learned that by doing so, more of the material she heard was understood and retained. There is a free web site out there that allows you to take a test to find out what type of learning is most effective for you individually. I forget what it's address is, but I hope you get the idea. By being creative, as much as possible, you can reach more people by addressing these different means of learning that people have naturally, and thus, your 'sermons' will be less boring.

Why preach?

It seems to me that there may be an additional reason for why sermons seem to bore us. While Tom may be right on that the hope in the Gospel to create an alternative world to the one we are gifted with, I think that it may be that while we are hoping for an alternative world, we find in the sermon all that we really have is the dry monotonous world that we already have. Sometimes escapist rhetoric is just that, and for us to pick up our lives responsibly and justly is more difficult for us to listen to.

This is what differentiates, IMHO, a sermon from a movie. While we might go there to escape our dull monotonous lives looking for a world of adventure or glamour, or dare I say something sexy and appealing, the preacher dares to confront us and say that it is in the monotonous routines of raising children, doing laundry, going to work, making love to a spouse, or managing difficult relationships, is where the Holy resides. Instead of escaping the world as it is, it immerses us in it and says, "You will live out your baptism here."

Yes, it may push us to consider how the kingdom of God might awaken an alternative imagination, but let's be realistic about it. If God created this world and all that is in it good, let's celebrate its goodness and find joy in what God has created.

Priesthood of all believers

I wonder if we moved away from our Greek rhetoric roots and worshipping at the altar of Calvin, Luther, and Zwingli and began to embrace the concept of the priesthood of ALL believers, we wouldn't have the problem of "boring sermons."  If we really believe that all disciples of Christ have been uniquely gifted and have something to build up the body, then we no longer have to rely on one person being God's messenger.

Already true

In all but the most hidebound institutional expressions of church, the solution you propose has already been realized. Except for a few assignments in seminary, my sermons are never just one person speaking. Our sermons are always dialogical conversations with multiple voices. My role as "preacher" is to be a prepared and trained facilitator of a divine conversation whose themes and outcomes are entirely up to the Holy Spirit. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. But that's true of "talking to" style sermons, too.

A Different Perspective

I've been a believer since 1970. I've heard sermons from that time on from sincere pastors from a variety of denominations and also evangelical "non-denominational" and charismatic churches. I could tell you precious few things that I've learned from any of them that have been meaningful and life changing. I could tell you story after story of what I've learned from conversations and discussions with the people who've populated my life over the years, and the books I've read. I'm not so sure having someone talk at the congregation for a huge percentage of our time together is the best use of the time we have as a church family. That's especially true of the church in this century. Even Jesus was relational. Certainly he taught his disciples, but it was in the context of their lives together and a lot of it was in conversation.

Through the internet, people can hear some of the best preachers and teachers in the world. What we can give each other in our church life together is fellowship, discussion, mentoring, care for each other, accountability, and a shared examination and study of the scripture. I have very little free time, and my time with other believers is precious to me. I don't want to spend that time having some guy spend it all talking at me from the pulpit.

Sermons are like antibiotics

Sermons are like antibiotics when the believer does not have a personal devotional time outside the church. Too many believe that their Spiritual relationship requires one hour a week listening to someone speak about the Bible. If I go to the gym once a week to watch people work out why should I expect to loose weight? If a student goes to class for two hours a week and doesn't study during the week why should they expect to learn anything? There is more to the Christian life (Discipleship) then just going to church to listen to a sermon.

Letter from Clara Thompson

I’ve gone to church all my life, and I can tell Thomas Long why sermons bore me (“Why sermons bore us,” Sept. 6). Too often hearing sermons is like repeating first grade over and over, with just variations on the same themes.

My husband was a pastor. When he died I went back to seminary and found to my amazement that the Bible could be exciting. I learned so much I had never known before in all my years of going to church. My daughter, who grew up with two parents who were pastors, is now going to the same seminary and also finding that excitement.

Jesus knew how to make his message relevant, often by telling stories which we remember to this day. Sermons don’t have to be boring, but if they are, don’t blame the listeners.

Clara Thompson
Montgomery, Ill.