How to Listen to a Bad Sermon

Written by Karl Dahlfred.

You’re at church.  Maybe it’s your own church, or maybe you’re just visiting.  But as the preacher gets going, it becomes obvious that his sermon is going nowhere.  Maybe it is just dull.  Or maybe he is spouting off his own opinion with the Scriptures as a springboard.  Or maybe it is moralistic or allegorical.  Or maybe the preacher is simply getting the Bible wrong, twisting the meaning of the passage at hand.  There are a thousand variations of the bad sermon.  But when you are locked in to listening to a bad sermon, how should you respond?

The typical way that I respond to a bad sermon is to sit quietly and stew about how bad it is.  Then when we get home from church, I complain to my wife about how bad it was, and list all the reasons it was bad.  This elicits empathy from my wife, who also had to sit through the bad sermon (though she is sometimes less affected by it when our kids are squirmy).  While I admit that getting upset about how bad it was is my gut level reaction, it is not all that helpful.  I go to church to encounter God, to worship Him, to listen to His Word, and to be built up.  Meditating on all the reasons why the sermon is bad doesn’t really accomplish any of those goals.  There is, of course, a place for critiquing bad sermons (I wrote a whole blog series about this), but there is also something to be said for redeeming bad sermons, and avoiding bitterness.  The reason that I can sometimes get bitter about bad sermons is that I am hoping to hear something good from God’s Word and then have my hopes dashed.  But it is no fun to live in the gall of bitterness.  And it certainly does not honor God.

Somewhere along the way, the Lord has done a work in my heart so that now I often try to make the best of bad sermons.  Even if the preacher is missing the point of the passage or droning on about something only vaguely related to Christianity, I can still get something out of the sermon by focusing on the things that are true and right in the sermon.  The Apostle Paul said, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8)


Is there anything good at all about the sermon?

Think on that!  

Sometimes it will be good and true statements about God or Christ in the midst of a sea of rubbish that we need to latch on to, and meditate upon so that we don’t drown in bitterness (or sleep).  Often times we can find *something* worthwhile, if we just listen and try.  

Sometimes, however, it can be really difficult to see any good at all in a sermon.  In that case, I find it best to read over the Bible text that the sermon is supposedly about, and think about what it means.  Even if the preacher isn’t paying much attention to the text, it doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t.  The preacher is responsible before God for how he preaches, but I, as a listener, am also responsible for how I listen and what I do with the time that I’ve been given.  As the Apostle Paul says, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.” (Ephesians 5:15-16).   Therefore, whether the sermon you happen to be afflicted with is actually evil, or just off-topic, make the best of your time sitting there.  Focus on the good things that you can, and mediate on those.  Listen for the Bible, and read the Bible in your hand.  Decide in your own mind that regardless of what the preacher or anyone else is doing, you are here to worship God and to hear from His Word.  In an ideal world, the preacher and the congregation would all be pursuing that goal together.  But in a fallen world, we sometimes need to pursue that on our own.



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