What is the solution to boring preaching? Barth says there is only one: to start being biblical in our sermons.
Preachers must not be boring. To a large extent the pastor and boredom are synonymous concepts. Listeners often think that they have heard already what is being said in the pulpit. They have long since known it themselves. The fault certainly does not lie with them alone. Against boredom the only defense is again being biblical. If a sermon is biblical, it will not be boring. Holy scripture is in fact so interesting and has so much that is new and exciting to tell us that listeners cannot even think about dropping off to sleep.
(Karl Barth, Homiletics, 80, emphasis mine)
But hold on, here! Is this really true? Will a biblical sermon automatically be prevented from being boring? I’m not sure I am tracking here with Barth. (Yes, I do occasionally disagree!!)
Perhaps much depends on what Barth means by a sermon being “biblical” but doesn’t Barth’s characterization set us out on a dangerous trajectory? I (and I’m sure also you) have heard sermons that are very closely tied to the biblical text that are, well, pretty boring. So isn’t Barth’s characterization in danger of leading one to conclude that a sermon’s biblical veracity is judged by how non-boring it is? But surely it is possible to preach a sermon that is biblically faithful and yet dry as dust?
I’m not sure if Eutychus fell asleep because of the time of day or because Paul’s sermon was boring [Acts 20:9]–but if Paul’s sermon was indeed biblical (and I can’t imagine that it wouldn’t be!), then shouldn’t it have been exciting enough to keep poor sleepy Eutychus awake?
Imagine this little (unlikely) conversation between a pastor and one of his congregants:
Congregant: Pastor, I appreciate all the work you put into your sermons, but I just find them–I hope you won’t be offended–irrelevant, and even a bit boring at times. They don’t really speak to where I’m at or the struggles I’m having in my Christian life. I don’t understand what you are talking about half the time, and what you are talking about seems so distant from where I’m at.
Pastor: But my sermons can’t be irrelevant or boring because they are biblical!! And the Bible is so much more interesting than the little things that you and I face in our lives. Our little problems pale in the face of what the Bible speaks about–God! Perhaps you are just not seeing the grandeur of God. You need to set aside those things in your life each week so you can focus on the really important things.
Congregant: Ah, now I see! Your sermons really weren’t boring after all! It was just me. I guess I’ll try from now on not to feel bored when you are preaching from the Bible and not worry about my problems.
Congregant (thinking to himself): He just doesn’t get it!
Pastor: Atta boy!
Pastor (thinking to himself): He just doesn’t get it!
So either the congregant doesn’t get it, or the pastor doesn’t. Is the sermon boring because the congregant simply doesn’t understand what preaching is all about? (If so, that can change perhaps over time, but the congregant may may still end up feeling bored with the sermon at times, and probably not a little guilty as a result). Or is the sermon boring because the pastor thinks that he is being biblical, but in reality he isn’t? And will this not tempt the pastor to be swayed toward making his sermons more exciting, because after all, boring sermons aren’t biblical!
If we do take Barth at his word and acknowledge that truly biblical sermons cannot be boring, then we are still left with trying to answer the question of what a truly biblical sermon looks like. Simply saying that a sermon can’t be boring because it is biblical doesn’t answer the homiletical question of whether the “boredom” factor should even come into play.
Having said all this, I have a gut feeling that what Barth is saying is probably true after all. Truly biblical sermons won’t be boring, because they speak of life and freedom and abundance in Christ. But I’m also not convinced that Barth (here at least) has done much to give us insight into distinguishing the difference between a non-boring biblical sermon and a non-boring non-biblical sermon.
(Perhaps I’m also missing something of what “boring” meant in Barth’s context. Surely even the concept of “boredom” in our day isn’t the same as what Barth meant by boredom in his day.)