The problem with one really good sermon

A good sermon

The problem with one really good sermon – I hesitate to write “great” in connection with a sermon – is that there is always next Sunday.

Maybe it’s just me, but I suspect most preachers will agree with me about this: As good as it feels to preach an excellent sermon, to receive lots of compliments about something you’ve said, to have a full inbox of congratulatory email by the time you get home on Sunday afternoon, you realize at some point that you’ve got to do the same thing all over again the next week.

A mentor early on in my ministry used to talk about the “disturbing regularity of Sunday morning,” and I very quickly I came to understand what he meant. Preaching a good sermon – perhaps even an excellent sermon – felt good on Sunday afternoon. And maybe it felt good for a little while on Monday. But by Monday night, the following Sunday would be staring me directly in the face. I knew I’d be expected to do the same thing all over again the next Sunday.

There is no escaping it, the pressure to do it every time. Even a hall-of-fame baseball player only gets a hit every three times at bat. How can a preacher be expected to be better than that?

I’d like to think that I’ve preached a few really good sermons over the years. Sometimes the ones I feel good about receive a kind of ho-hum response, while others, which seemed ho-hum to me when I put the finishing touches on them, turned out to be huge crowd-pleasers.

Either way, I’m guessing that I’ve hit a home run at least a few times over the years.

How do I know? I’m not sure. It’s a combination of things, I guess. Standing ovation? Haven’t had many of them. I received one for the last sermon I preached at my last church, but had mixed feelings about it. No, to tell the truth I had mainly negative feelings about it. I was embarrassed. That was hardly the response I was looking for.

I grew up in a large and growing suburban church. At one point in my childhood that church was the largest in the denomination. We always had overflow crowds. Every fourth Sunday or so my family would have to sit in the church basement and watch via closed-circuit TV because there were no seats left upstairs.

Was the preacher of my childhood a great preacher? I think he was. Can I remember any of the sermons he preached? I remember a few, mainly the ones I disagreed with. So, what made him a great preacher? Lots of reasons. He was a good speaker, of course, and he always seemed to have something to say. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t engaged.

But there was something more, a bit harder to describe.

A few weeks ago, after my dad passed away, my family asked him if he would officiate at my dad’s funeral service. He’s not much younger than my dad was; he must be at least 80, but he said yes. I sat in the front row with my mom and my sisters, and I realized then what made him such a fine preacher. He preached the gospel.

He didn’t shout or wave his arms. In fact, I don’t remember that he raised his voice or gestured at all. He simply spoke in a reasonable and compelling way about what we believe. There weren’t all that many people in the funeral home for the service – a consequence of outliving most of your friends – but the pastor from my childhood preached in the same reassuring tones I remember from childhood. He said what I most needed to hear.

Next Sunday morning is coming, and I tell myself that I don’t need a great sermon. I need more than anything to say what’s true, what my congregation most needs to hear.

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.

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15 Responses to The problem with one really good sermon

  1. Laurie Fuller February 12, 2014 at 1:10 pm #

    Doug, so weird calling you that, I don’t mean any disrespect, but I thought you preached every sermon at First Pres wonderful, great and with so much meaning to me and my family. Don’t doubt yourself you will always come out on top! standing up right now…..Laurie

  2. Paul Burgess February 12, 2014 at 1:30 pm #

    Doug: Dear friend! I really enjoy all that you say. I loved working with you on worship planning in Wheaton. The thing that makes a great sermon (or any spoken/written message) is it’s sincerity, it’s humanness, it’s reiterating God’s love and grace, To me, that’s what you were saying to me … and to the congregation. Keep it up! Your congregation in Geneva is a very lucky group!

    • Doug February 12, 2014 at 1:36 pm #

      Oh my goodness, I have a congregation in Geneva?

      • Doug February 12, 2014 at 1:37 pm #

        Thanks, Paul. You’re a dear friend. And I miss you too as a neighbor. (Is our house okay?)

  3. Sandy Steffen February 12, 2014 at 1:56 pm #

    Doug, speaking of that last First Pres. sermon, I stood up because I wanted to let you know that I supported you, that I was really sad you & Susan were leaving and that I was proud of what you contributed to our church family the short time you were with our First Pres. family, no matter how difficult it was!! Can’t really remember much of the sermon.

    Speaking of neighbors the big tree in front of 1726 is gone and there are now many garden gnomes in the front. UGH!!!

    My Very Best to you & Susan & Happy Valentines Day (the Swiss have the BEST chocolate on the planet, no wax like is put in our U.S. chocolate). Love, Sandy ( :

    • Doug February 12, 2014 at 2:03 pm #

      Garden gnomes?

  4. mike February 12, 2014 at 2:16 pm #

    Hello Doug –

    It’s always interesting to get a look behind the curtain – in this case into your head. I have a newly found empathy for pastors on Monday. Never thought about them feeling increased pressure as a result of “hitting one out of the park” the week before (you did that a lot BTW). But how about pastors who are about to deliver their first sermon to their new congregations?
    Bet you’re glad that’s behind you in Zurich. Any advice to a congregation about to receive their new pastor’s first sermon? No clapping, right? (rim shot)

    • Doug February 13, 2014 at 1:23 am #

      I like everything about preaching from the preparation part to the delivery part, so if there’s pressure I suppose it’s self-imposed. Kind of like the Apostle Paul’s comment about working out your own salvation with fear and trembling. The trembling is not whether or not you might be saved, but rather in doing it justice – living a life (or preaching a sermon) worthy of the God who summons it. I want to do my best.

      Thanks for the response, Mike.

      • mike February 14, 2014 at 10:06 am #

        “Working out your own salvation” is quite an open ended and somewhat vague invitation….in that it seems like there’s no measuring stick or set of rules to gauge progress. Guess I need to create a new category on my daily To Do list.
        Don’t know if that’s about feeling better about what I’m doing…or trembling.

        Gave Debra some chocolate for Valentine’s Day – it was Italian chocolate…I hear it’s the best.

  5. Ruth Lundy February 13, 2014 at 9:27 am #

    Doug, I enjoy reading your blogs and look forward to them every day.
    Hi to Susan.

  6. Georgia Hamilton February 13, 2014 at 4:27 pm #

    Doug,
    Sounds like you discovered the “magic” ingrdient for your sermons, As I recall, you hit many out of the park here at FP! This one goes in that category!

    Blessings to you both,
    Georgia

  7. Bob Sadowski February 14, 2014 at 8:23 am #

    I always enjoyed your sermons but never “graded” them, I got a lot from them and enjoyed knowing you.

    • Doug February 14, 2014 at 8:36 am #

      The past tense concerns me, Bob.

  8. Gary Stahl February 17, 2014 at 6:02 pm #

    Doug;
    Sorry to hear about your father’s death.

    The value of a sermon may be better judged in the ears of the hearers rather than in the head of the speaker.

    I’ve never preached a sermon, but I’ve sung a lot of anthems as a member of the choir. There have been numerous times when I’ve felt that we really butchered a piece only to have people come up afterward and tell me how beautiful it was or how much it spoke to them.

    Even the best sermon will meet with some detractors, but there will also (hopefully) be
    someone whose heart you may reach, even if you don’t realize it.

    • Doug February 18, 2014 at 12:22 am #

      Good to hear from you, Gary. It’s been a long time. Thanks for the perspective from the choir. You always saw my best side.

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