On Sunday, thousands of sermons will be preached in churches across the world by men who have given their lives to the study and proclamation of God’s word.
It is a high calling, and some of those sermons will be excellent, many of them will be good, and a few of them will stretch the definition of the word “sermon.” But predictably, there will be a number of good and godly pastors who, on any given Sunday, will stand in the pulpit and deliver — well, how shall we say this? — a sermon dud.
This was a question taken up by John Newton (1725–1807), the slave trader turned pastor, the author of the great hymn “Amazing Grace,” and the much-praised author of hundreds of incredible spiritual letters.
Amazing Grace and Boring Sermons
Newton was also a preacher, but you wouldn’t know it because, in truth, Newton’s own sermons were not applauded like his other work, certainly not like his hymns and letters. He was convinced that extemporaneous preaching was best (preaching without notes), but the final evidence over his pulpit career indicates this was probably not a wise decision.
Tim Keller calls Newton’s sermons “fairly stodgy and pedestrian” (Newton on the Christian Life, 24). And even one of his friends, an eyewitness of Newton in the pulpit, admitted, “his utterance was far from clear, and his attitudes ungraceful” (Works of John Newton, 1:cx).
What Newton lacked in dull sermons, he made up for in his genuine love for his people, but in the pulpit, dare I say it, Newton was not immune from riffing a sermon dud of his own.
So how should a congregation respond?
The Weakness of Preachers
In one letter on how to listen to sermons (Works of John Newton, 1:152), Newton explained:
When you hear a gospel sermon, and it is not in all respects to your satisfaction, be not too hasty to lay the whole blame upon the preacher.
Whoa, wait, blame sharing?
Newton goes on:
The Lord’s ministers have not much to say in their own behalf. They feel (it is to be hoped) their own weakness and defects, and the greatness and difficulty of their work. They are conscious that their warmest endeavors to proclaim the Savior’s glory are too cold, and their most importunate addresses to the consciences of men are too faint: and sometimes they are burdened with such discouragements, that even their enemies would pity them if they knew their case.
Newton asks us to stop and consider the struggles and the sacrifices and the challenges your pastor faces on a regular basis. The demands of pastoral ministry and preaching are great. Not to mention family demands. And on top of the demands, in many cases the pastor carries within himself a greater desire to serve you than he has the gifts to make it happen. He wants to stir the affections of his people, and yet knows how hard this aim is in reality.
A pastor’s chronic self-disappointment is common, and it’s a terrible weight upon the soul of a humble pastor. He sees his own weaknesses perhaps better than anyone else.
The Blame Might Be Ours
Perhaps here Newton is writing out of personal experience, ever haunted by his times watching the great George Whitefield preach sermons. Whatever the case, at this point in the letter Newton characteristically turns the table on his reader.
Indeed, they have much to be ashamed of; but it will be more useful for you, who are a hearer, to consider whether the fault may not possibly be in yourself.
Perhaps you thought too highly of the man, and expected too much from him.
Perhaps you thought too meanly of him, and expected too little.
In the former case, the Lord justly disappointed you; in the latter, you received according to your faith.
Perhaps you neglected to pray for him; and then, though he might be useful to others, it is not at all strange that he was not so to you.
Or possibly you have indulged a trifling spirit, and brought a dearth [lack] and deadness upon your own soul; for which you had not been duly humbled, and the Lord chose that time to rebuke you.
Strong and helpful words from Newton.
Six Reminders for Listeners
When we hear a sermon dud, we should remember:
Our pastor is a weak and sinful man, and he is quite likely aware of this without our help.
Our pastor carries a heavy burden for the flock, and there is nothing he wants more than to serve the souls in his church (including you), and he knows he falls short in this aim over and over.
Our pastor benefits from our realistic expectations on Sunday morning. We should neither puff him up as a celebrity and expect too much, nor diminish him and his gifts and expect too little.
Our pastor’s sermons will never compete with the thrill of our Netflix binge and our unguarded and abused affections come Sunday morning.
Our pastor needs our earnest attention and eager hearts on Sunday. How can we be surprised that we gain so little, when our hearts arrive at church so dull and easily distracted?
Our pastor must have our prayers. We should appear at church having already prayed for God to bless the sermon and affect hearts with the gospel.
Like all of his letters, Newton makes his points clear. In this case, sermon duds are inevitable, but they are useful to expose both the needs of our pastors and the needs of our own hearts, too. May we never stop praying for our pastor, as he earnestly labors in prayer and in preaching for us.