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The Worst Thing About My Own Sermons

No one enjoys second-guessing himself, what Warren Wiersbe calls “doing an autopsy on oneself.”

It’s possible to work ourselves into the psych ward or even an early grave by analyzing every single thing we do and questioning the motive behind every word.

No one is advocating that.

And yet, there is much to be said for looking back at what we did and learning from our mistakes and failures and omissions.

That’s what this is all about.

It’s best done in solitary. (The worst thing we preachers do is ask our wives, “How did I do?” Poor woman. She’s in a no-win situation. Leave her out of it.)

A recording of our preaching helps. (But we have to promise to stay awake during the playback.)

That said, I’ll get to the point of this article.

What I hate most about my preaching is the tendency to intrude too much into the sermon.

I hate realizing that in a sermon I was trying to co-star with Jesus when the Holy Spirit called me to be a member of the supporting cast.

I did it yesterday.

At a funeral of a dear friend who was a longtime deacon in a former pastorate, I filled the message time with too much of me.

Now, I adore his family and, if I’m any judge, the feeling is mutual. So, feeling at home and among friends, I shared their grief at our loved one’s death and rejoiced in their confidence that he is with the Lord.

Instead of delivering a formal message that had been well thought out in advance, I shared memories of my friend and insights from Scripture that say so much about death and eternal life.

Nothing of this was wrong or out of place. If there is one thing I believe strongly, it’s in the integrity of the Lord Jesus Christ and His assurances for life eternal.

But the sermon was just “too much Joe.”

I can hear my voice now. “Let me share this verse with you that means so much to me. Honestly, I’ve never heard another preacher use it.” Then, trying to be cutesy, I said, “Psalm 17:15 is my own discovery. In the future, when you read it, think of it as ‘Joe’s verse.'”

Where did that come from? Groan.

I talked about my dad and his death and how our family copes with missing him.

That was unnecessary. It wasn’t offensive to them, but in retrospect seems to have been out of place.

I made a couple of half-hearted attempts at humor. Now, no one is against healthy laughter in a funeral service and I hope that when one is held in my honor, there will be plenty of it. But the preacher doesn’t need to try to force the humor. Let it come naturally.

My prayer today has been that the fifty or sixty in the congregation did not notice the ever-present reference to I, me, and mine. And, if they did, that they did not mind, or have forgotten it altogether.

It might even be that I’m the only person at that funeral who was bothered by that aspect of the message. I certainly hope so.

No preacher wants to be a distraction. We all want our messages to point people to the Savior and strengthen their faith in the promises of God.

Paul must have had this in mind when he said, “We do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake” (II Corinthians 4:5).

A hundred years ago, pastors would work to cleanse their sermons of all personal references. Old sermon books have the writers saying, “Pardon this personal reference” or “If I may be permitted a personal reference.”

I used to read such lines and grimace. I would think, “If the preachers only knew–this is the part of the sermon people will listen to most and remember the longest. Don’t apologize. Give us the personal reference, just do it well.”

Phillips Brooks described preaching as “truth through personality.” The preacher does not deliver God’s truth in a vacuum, life in this world does not take place in a germ-free laboratory, and that’s a good thing. God uses the preacher and his experiences and his personality, flawed though they are, to communicate His message.

This works well so long as the preacher doesn’t intrude too far into the message in order to draw attention to himself. We are messengers; we are not the message. When we finish, what the recipients think of us messenger-boys has nothing to do with anything.

In writing for this blog, I do what every other blogger does: go back over what we’ve typed in order to tighten up the lines, shorten run-on sentences, strike out redundancies, and check spelling. One other thing I’ve found myself doing is taking out about half of the first-person-singular references. Sometimes that means changing “I” to “we” as in the first sentence in this paragraph. And at times, other ways of phrasing a sentence (other than “I think” or “this is how I see it”) will occur.

But preaching is not writing. We don’t get the chance to edit it as we go. We cannot do what the judge does in a courtroom when he orders the jury to “disregard the testimony of the witness.” The congregation hears us and cannot un-hear what comes from our mouths.

This is live theater, so to speak. Real time.

As I see it–there it is again; it’s so hard to stop this!–there are several steps to overcoming this tendency to intrude into the message too prominently.

One: prepare better. Giving advance thought to the form of the message reduces the tendency to “wing it.” It’s in the “winging”–the adlibbing–that I tend to cross the line.

Two: pray about this very thing. “Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips” (Psalm 141:3). This recognizes that the Holy Spirit is as concerned (or more!) that the message should be free of too much self.

Three: constantly work on it. Control of the tongue and curbing the self are not gifts of the Spirit so much as they are works of righteousness.

The question lingers in the back of my mind as to why this subject deserves receiving the full blogging treatment today. The answer is twofold: getting this down in print will help me be more aware in the future, and someone who reads it may find it helpful to him or her.

When the credits roll at the end of this production, if I’ve done well, all attention will be directed toward the Lord Jesus. No one will sit through the dull credits just to see who this bit player was. If this bit-player has done his work well, it will not matter.  

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Joe McKeever has been a preacher for nearly 60 years, a pastor for 42 years, and a cartoonist/writer for Christian publications all his adult life. He lives in Ridgeland, Mississippi.