What to Do When You’re Bored with Preaching:
Solutions for Tired Preachers of the Gospel
By Reverend Todd A. Peperkorn, STM
Messiah Lutheran Church, Kenosha Wisconsin
St. Michael’s Liturgical Conference
Redeemer Lutheran Church
Fort Wayne, Indiana
St. Michael and All Angels, 2008
We’ve all faced it at one time or another, maybe often. Those of us who use the traditional lectionary of the Western Church perhaps face it more than most. You sit down to write your sermon for Sunday morning, pull up all of your usual sermon helps (Parsch, Gerhard, whatever else is on your go-to shelf), and you are ready to go. You look at the text, and realize two things: 1) You’ve preached on this exact text about eleven times, and 2) You have nothing more to say. You get up, get a cup of coffee, maybe try to pull out something different from the shelf. Maybe you look at the Old Testament reading, or the Epistle. You surf the web, look around for inspiration. Nothing. You dust off your Greek New Testament, in the hopes that the heavens will open and an incredible homily will drop down, based on the word qa¿rsei or prose÷feron or some other word that you’ve looked at a thousand times. Zip. Time to go make a call, play a game, or do something else. It won’t happen today.
The next day, it’s rinse and repeat.
By the time Sunday morning rolls around, you’re starting to feel guilty. You know you should have a new sermon. It’s your job. It’s your call. Furthermore, you like preaching. No, you love preaching. But why is this so hard? Or what makes preaching so hard now, even though you’ve been doing it for years?
The fact is that you’re bored. You’re bored with preaching the same text. You’re bored with your congregation. You’re bored with yourself, with your own words, spoken over and over again.
What I would like to do today is speak briefly about boredom in preaching, and offer some solutions for you. This come from a fellow preacher, and like most good preaching, I am speaking to myself of this as much as I am to you.
The causes for preacher’s boredom are myriad. I won’t even pretend to analyze or list all of them. Some of the obvious ones, though, do bear listing and brief comment:
- Physical. While this is perhaps obvious, simple physical stressors can affect your ability to preach. If you aren’t getting enough sleep, if you’re eating too much or drinking too me, this will make you sluggish and unable to concentrate. For me, caffeine came to make me so nervous and jittery that I couldn’t sit down and focus long enough to write a sermon. All of this can lead to that elusive category we call boredom.
- B) Mental. While this may not apply as much to boredom, it is certainly something to be aware of in your own life. If you are struggling beyond the normal grind of the Office, it is possible that you are suffering from clinical depression, burnout, compassion fatigue, or some other mental ailment that bears further examination. Go to your doctor. Talk to him or her about what is happening. They can help.
- Environmental. This can include everything from stress at home to extra meetings at church, freaking out about the state of the synod, or the economy, or whatever else it is that gets you going. But these things impact your ability to preach. Be mindful of how these things shape you.
- Spiritual. This is the most obvious place, and is probably where we gravitate when it comes to looking for causes of boredom. While I wouldn’t discount the first three at all, there is no question that the spiritual causes are the most dangerous. Here are a few of them:
- Overconfidence, arrogance. This is a particular temptation with the traditional lectionary, as we can come to believe that we have plumbed the depths of a text after preaching it ten times or more.
- Despair. Preachers rarely see the fruits of their labors. We are messengers, not measurers. Because of that, despair is ever around the corner, lurking, seeking to drive the preacher to believe that no one is listening, no one cares, and that you might as well quit. If you no longer believe that the Gospel is the power of God for salvation (Rom. 1:16), then you will quickly become disinterested in preaching, because it will be empty words.
Solutions for the Bored Preacher
So what do you do when you’re bored with preaching? Recognizing these various causes, here are a few tips from a fellow preacher that I hope will be of help to you. I’ve grouped them into two general categories, theological and practical.
Theological solutions for the bored preacher
1. Confess and Repent. Since this conference is at Redeemer, I felt obligated to say that first. But in this case, it is very true. Repent of your boredom with God’s Word, with your lackadaisical attitude toward your congregation, and toward the great and mighty task of preaching. Do not give the devil a foothold on your soul by clinging to these sins. Repent and be done with them. Go to your father confessor. Confess your sins and be absolved. This more than anything else will help you in your preaching. Related to this is the practice of actually hearing confession. I’ve found that hearing confession is the most useful “work” that I have for preaching. It helps you to understand the actual sins of your parishioners, and how God works to forgive them.
2. Pray for and remember your parish as you are writing. Gustaf Wingren, in his book on preaching writes the following regarding the role of the congregation:
“Hearers do not just come on the scene in a secondary way when the sermon begins, but that group was already there from the very first moment that the thought of preaching entered the preacher’s mind. They were present in the sermon from the beginning not because the preacher felt a missionary interest in them, or had a personal knowledge of his public, but rather because they were there in the passage itself. The preacher, on first reading the prescribed passage, found there words, sentences, promises, admonitions belonging to God’s people, which had been the water of life to them long before he was born and which will still be the same when his day is done. Now the word is here in order that by means of a particular sermon it may speak to this congregation which has come to listen and which thereby reveals itself as the congregation of the Word.”
Because of this, by praying for and remembering your congregation as your prepare your sermon, you are putting flesh and blood on the holy task. Sermons are about the Word and the Hearer. God desires more than anything else to come to His people, to forgive their sins, and to draw them into His holy embrace. I have gone so far as to keep pictures of parishioners lying around on my desk as I am preparing my sermons. This makes it much less of an academic exercise and much more the great spiritual task that it is.
3. Preach to just one member of the congregation. I don’t remember where I first ran across this suggestion, but it is a good one. St. Paul reminds us “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man.” (1 Corinthians 10:13 ESV) By preaching to one person, you make your sermons specific and timely. But the trials that face one of your parishioners is probably not that different from what we all face.
By doing this, you are actually going to make your sermons more universal, not less. It is when we try to stereotype or generalize that we lapse into the desire to become relevant or connected or something equally ridiculous. C.S. Lewis was right when he observed, “All that is not eternal is eternally out of date.”
4. Preach to yourself. This is a common variation on the last one. If you are not convicted of your sin then it is unlikely anyone else will be, either. If the Gospel does not comfort you then the Gospel may not be in there in the first place.
5. Recognize you are not alone. Preaching is no easy task. Luther himself often remarked that he would stay awake at nights in fear of preaching the next day. Every preacher gets afraid, bored, stuck, and every other preacher’s ailment you can come up with. It goes with the territory. But you will be able to address your boredom or preacher’s block much easier if you are able to recognize that you are not alone in your task. Talk about it with your brothers in office.
6. Remember the purpose of preaching. Peter Berg in his paper on the art of preaching calls preaching an assault, a mugging if you will. This view is quite common in preacher’s circles. From a theological point of few I suppose that is true at one level, but unhelpful at another. The Law kills, the Gospel makes alive, etc. From a rhetorical point of view, it is certainly not true, or at least is not a helpful way of thinking. We confessional Lutherans can get so wrapped up in how unique we are, how special and how insightful, that we can forget that the actual purpose of preaching is to create faith by means of the Gospel. Listen to Luther’s words on how God brings us into His embrace by the Gospel:
When God draws us, He is not like a hangman, who drags a thief up the ladder to the gallows; but He allures and coaxes us in a friendly fashion, as a kind man attracts people by his amiability and cordiality, and everyone willingly goes to him.
Now what does this mean for the preacher who is bored or unmotivated? It means this. We are to approach preaching first of all as critically important. Preaching faith is life saving. But secondly, we are to approach preaching like we were trying to save the life of a two year old who is out on the limb of a tree. When I was two my parents tell me that I did just this. I climbed to the top of a hundred foot evergreen. Now how do you as a father or mother get your son down in that circumstance? For starters, you are not going to scare them down. All that will do is paralyze them, make them so that they can’t imagine coming down from the heights. It will require love, coaxing, friendly conversation and gentleness.
When we preach to our congregation, we are not to do so as though we are hurting them. We are about saving them. Now how does this help with boredom? Coaxing the two year old off of the limb of the tree is a lot harder than scaring the hell out of him. By remembering the purpose of preaching, it makes the task more concrete, and that will help us to find that approach in the text itself.
7. In order to have sometime to give, you must be receiving. In other words, be fed. Listen to good sermons. In our online world you can listen to great sermons any time, and while it’s not as good as being there, it will still be of great service to you. As a preacher, you must be able to receive the gifts of God yourself.
8. Don’t just dust off your Greek and Hebrew, do it right. If we believe that the Scriptures as the Word of God, and that the sermon is delivering God’s Word to God’s people, then every preacher of the Gospel ought to be working in the text itself, and not a translation. This is hard. I know. I struggle with it every week.
9. Tie in the liturgy to your preaching. Common words make for a common understanding. You probably do this already, but be more deliberate about it. What elements of our common liturgical life together address death? Fear? Doubt? Guilt? Sickness and disease? This doesn’t mean use some cheesy formula or automatically including the exact words of the liturgy. Sometimes an allusion or passing reference can be enough. One of the chief things that makes preaching different from catechesis or bible class is the context. Preaching happens in a specific liturgical space and time. Be mindful of how that shapes what you say and how you say it.
Practical solutions for the bored preacher
10. Schedule your sermon writing time. Don’t leave the time you spend preparing for Sunday morning as the leftovers. This is the most important thing you do every week as a pastor. Yet it is so easy in the midst of terribly busy schedules to push it aside or cram it until Friday afternoon, or Saturday afternoon, or Sunday morning. Schedule time every day to work on your sermon. It may only be 20 minutes, but do it. Develop a study and writing plan that involves both general reading and specific textual studies. Make sure that this includes time for praying the daily office, and for praying for your members. DON’T CRAM. While you may need to do this sometimes, if you make that the norm, you will quickly run out of gas on what to say to your flock.
11. Work on refining your style. One of my favorite books on style is by Ben Yagoda and is entitled, The Sound on the Page. The basic thesis of Yagoda’s book is that Struck and White are wrong. Style does not mean simple. Direct yes. Able to communicate, yes. But that does not mean dumbing down your language. It means using language as God intended it, as something rich and wonderful and full of surprises. What makes great writing, and I would commend to you that what makes great preaching, is style. I don’t mean cheap plastic style. I mean how you put the words together, what words you use, what makes a sermon by Todd Peperkorn different than a sermon by David Petersen or whoever. This gets back to specificity like we spoke of earlier. Be mindful of the way you preach and why you do it.
So what can you do to refine your style? Read. Read, read, read, read, read. Read fiction, non-fiction, poetry, books about preaching. Read whatever you can get your hands on. But not just books. Music and art can play a significant role in shaping who you are as a preacher of the Gospel. J.S. Bach has cantatas for every Sunday of the church year. Bach had a great understanding of the liturgical life and of the texts of the Gospels. Why not learn from him? In the same way, the great artists of the world can reveal elements of human nature to you that you may not see otherwise, as well as a new insight into understanding the Gospel.
12. Vary your reading. If you’re like me, you have about half a dozen books that you always go to for sermon preparation. Parsch, Gerhard, Giertz, etc. You have your favorites. This is good, because they work. But it can also put you in a rut. I would urge you to try and find at least one thing you haven’t read before each week for sermon preparation.
Martin Luther once wrote:
“Our Lord God wishes himself to be the preacher, for preachers often go astray in their notes so that they can’t go on with what they have begun. It has often happened to me that my best outline came undone. On the other hand, when I was least prepared my words flowed during the sermon.”
All we can do is receive what God has given us, confess, be absolved, pray and work. It is His Word. He will give the increase, and see to it that it accomplishes its purpose. But take heart! Preaching is a noble task, and our heavenly Father will see you through it to the end. Your preaching is never in vain.
-Todd A. Peperkorn