The Surprising Danger of Boring Sermons
The devil is a preacher. From the third chapter of the Bible onward, he is opening up God’s word to people, seeking to interpret it, to apply it, to offer an invitation.
So the old Serpent of Eden comes to the primeval woman not with a Black Mass and occult symbols, but with the Word she’d received from her God—with the snake’s peculiar spin on it. Throughout the Old Testament, he preaches peace—just like the angels of Bethlehem do—except he does so when there is no peace. He points God’s people to the particulars of worship commanded by God—sacrifices and offerings and feast-days—just without the preeminent mandates of love, justice, and mercy. Satan even preaches to God—about the proper motives needed for godly discipleship on the part of God’s servants.
In the New Testament, the satanic deception leads the scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees to pore endlessly over biblical texts, just missing the point of Christ Jesus therein. They come to conclusions that have partially biblical foundations—the devil’s messages are always expository—they just intentionally avoid Jesus.
So, the scoffers feel quite comfortable asking how a man from Nazareth could be Messiah when the coming King is of Bethlehem. They find themselves wondering how the Son of Man can be crucified when the Bible says he lives forever. When Jesus says those who follow him should eat his flesh and drink his blood, there’s little doubt that the Adversary was there to point the crowds to Leviticus’ forbidding of the consumption of human blood. When the satanically inspired crowds crucified Jesus, they did so pointing to biblical texts that called for the execution of blasphemers and insurrectionists (Deut 21).
When the early church rockets out of the upper room in Jerusalem, Satan is there, with false teachers, to preach all kinds of things that seem to be straight from God’s word—from libertinism to legalism to hyper-spirituality to carnality. He never stops preaching. But the devil is boring.
That seems like exactly the opposite of what would be true of Satan. We think of the Tempter—and his temptations—as darkly exciting, tantalizing, seemingly irresistible. But that’s not at all the case. False teaching in the Scripture—and in the ages of the church ever since—is boring. Read the expositions of Job’s counselors—and compare them to the proclamation of God at the end of the book of Job. Read what Balaam was paid to preach compared to what he announced through the power of the Spirit.
Satanic preaching is boring because the goal isn’t to engage people with preaching. It’s to leave the “desires of the flesh” alone, so that the hearers may continue in their captivity to the prince of the power of this air.
For some, dull sermons are themselves a sign of godliness. After all, doesn’t the Apostle warn us against “lofty speech or wisdom” (1 Cor 2:1)? But the kind of rhetoric Paul is railing against here isn’t exciting—it’s typical in an era in which Greek rhetoric is everywhere. Paul doesn’t contrast engaging speech with dull speech, but the demonstration of human craft with the “demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor 2:5). Indeed, Paul says his message is a “secret and hidden wisdom of God” (1 Cor 2:7), the unveiling of an ancient mystery that unlocks the meaning of everything.
Jesus was often poorly received—but he never bored. When he preached, demons shrieked, crowds gasped, and services sometimes ended with attempted executions rather than altar calls. The prophets before him and the apostles after him were just like that too. They provoked shouts of happiness or warrants for arrest but they never prompted yawns.
If lost people don’t like your message because they’re hostile to the gospel, you’re in good company. But if you’re boring the people of God with the Word of God, something has gone seriously awry. It may be that you preach just like the devil, and that you don’t even know it.
Sometimes preachers bore because they don’t understand the nature of Scripture. The Bible, after all, captures not only the intellect, but the affections, the conscience, the imagination. That’s why the canon includes stories and parables, poetry and proverbs, letters and visions. Dull preaching often translates the imagination-gripping variety of Scripture into the boring tedium of an academic discourse or the boring banality of a “how-to” manual.
So, if you find yourself translating a Psalm into the structure of a Pauline epistle before you can preach it, you’re not letting the Scripture do its work in gripping the hearts of your people. Not even the most straightforward, rigorously doctrinal passages of Scripture are singularly intellectual. The apostles are visual preachers. Paul speaks of gouging out eyes (Gal 4:15), giving his body over to be burned (1 Cor 13:3), and compares himself to a nursing mother (1 Thess 2:7), while James writes of a tongue aflame (Jas 3:6) and fattened hearts in a day of slaughter (Jas 5:5).
The biblical revelation is far from boring. It’s the most exciting, engaging story imaginable, which is why it is aped all over the place in epic, drama, poetry, and song.
Preachers who would rage against boredom can start by learning to listen to the literary power of the text. This means, for one thing, learning to form moral imaginations that can be fired by the Scriptures. Cut back on the political blogs and TV. Read some good fiction, some poetry, listen to stories being told—and thereby shape an imagination that recognizes literary structure, beauty, and coherence.
Some preachers bore because they misunderstand the nature of human rebellion. Sermons typically bore because they rest on abstractions at best, or on clichés and platitudes at worst. Abstract ideas can easily be distanced from human sin—and shopworn, recycled slogans are too familiar to threaten. Satan loves such preaching, because it leaves his authority over human rebellion unthreatened.
Often sin is left alone less by preachers who approve of sin from the pulpit than by preachers whose sermons are so vague and abstract that the hearers are able to evade the force of the proclamation. Like Saul convincing himself that he had kept God’s command to destroy “all” the property of the Amalekites (1 Sam 15), all of us are prone to dodge the truth-seeking nature of biblical proclamation. Vague abstractions do not expose the conscience. It’s not enough then to say, “Husbands love your wives”; instead, we must point out what that looks like, with concrete application, and what it doesn’t.
In his teaching, Jesus exposed how his hearers were evading the text—by jarring them with the idea of being a brother to a Samaritan, or asking how demons can cast out demons, or showing resurrection-denying Sadducees how their ridicule of resurrection doesn’t square with their own reading of Moses.
The best way to outwit the Evil One is to anticipate how his powers will seek to counter-act your preaching. The more you know your people, their struggles and triumphs, and the more you know human nature, the better you’ll know how to preach sermons that can pierce through strongholds, and gain attention. That doesn’t guarantee that people will like what you say; but it helps ensure they’ll hear it being said.
A sermonic information dump—with PowerPoint outline point by sub-point by sub-sub-point can “safely” distance your people from Christ. A sermon that simply collates and regurgitates what you’ve read in commentaries can make the Word of God a matter of cognition not submission. A strung-together list of life tips can make it easy for your people to disregard this word just like they disregard the weight loss plans commercials on television or the flossing ad campaigns they see from the dentist’s chair.
The devil doesn’t mind boring sermons, so long as you allow him to preach too. He doesn’t mind the Word being heard so long as it’s the appetites that really enliven his people. And he doesn’t mind the gospel going forward as long as God’s people hear his accusations of them (and they’re all expository and biblically-based!).
But if you grip people with the drama of the gospel of Christ, if you jolt them into seeing the ancient newness of the Word of God, then you’ll have a demonic insurrection on your hands.
Publication date: August 11, 2016