Non-boring preaching?

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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.)

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3 thoughts on “Non-boring preaching?

  1. I get the feeling that Barth’s point is that the preached Word, preached in dependence upon the present activity of the Spirit in the living congregation, will always be surprising. Preaching that is biblical endeavours to be confronted afresh by ‘the strange new world’ within the Bible and then to be transformed by it. This can’t be boring. And the fault can lie here with the preacher or the congregant, whenever they presume that they’ve ‘heard this one before’ and do not stand ready to mutually engage with the text. I may be reading my own bias into Barth’s meaning here, but those are the thoughts it triggers for me. More and more (thanks in large part to your Shepherd the Flock class) I am thinking of the homiletic event as, well, precisely that. One can be in the room and opt out of that event, from either side of the pulpit. It is the opting out that enters the boredom. Could we not say that the example of Eutychus tells us that in that instant the homiletic event (for whatever reason) failed, and yet also say that the response of Paul to that failure was not to lay blame but to seek God’s gracious resurrection of the situation.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post. For the record I preached last Sunday and put someone quite obviously to sleep. For this I do not blame them. The manuscript may or may not have been biblical, but in the delivery I nearly curled up in the corner myself.

  2. Blayne Banting

    I would not assume to speak for Barth on this matter, but I’m wondering whether in our own time at least if there is a connection between boring and irrelevant. Congregants tune out preachers because their sermons do not directly address the needs of the office or home on Monday morning. What is beyond the pale of the immediate is therefore deemed irrelavant – a fate worse than death in our ‘plug in and play’ culture. So to me it becomes a matter of preaching trajectory not one of the inevitability of preaching the odd ‘droner’ that would put the Energizer Bunny to sleep. The preacher is called to preach the whole counsel of God, the breadth of the redemption story, to form a new vocabulary, history, creed and purpose for God’s people. This involves ‘big picture,’ ‘big story’ stuff that should be the preoccupation of a group of resident aliens seeking the Kingdom – preacher and congregation alike. Maybe the disconnect comes when the individual congregational members become too preoccupied with their own little stories and lose sight of the bigger one (is learning how to get along with an argumentative boss or a difficult child really a huge Kingdom issue?) and when the preacher neglects to show how the ‘big story’ impacts all our little stories. One might be too small, the other too big. So, in the end, being boring might be a team effort between preacher and people. A greater appreciation for what God is up to in the world may help on one side and some pastoral sensitivity may help on the other. Otherwise we may just have to get used to being boring together.

  3. David: Thanks for the post

    John: I think you hit the nail on the head. Preaching is often not done on the dependence of the Spirit at work in the congregation, through the Word, and the preacher. The preacher ends up depending on him/herself to be relevant, catchy, and flashy in order to get the listener’s attention. I think this is what Barth had in mind. Preacher’s were preaching to the context of their situation, and in Barth’s case, it was Nazi Germany and liberal idealism–scripture was not allowed to speak for itself. The problem with preachers is they think they need to try hard to be relevant, and the problem with our congregations is that they think it’s the preacher’s job to make scripture relevant to their lives when in all reality scripture is already relevant to our contemporary situation.

    This is not to say that the preacher cannot present scripture as being more relevant, but it is to say that scripture doesn’t need us to twist and turn it in order to be relevant–it is relevant for scripture heard afresh, as John noted, is always new and relevant. Growing up I had the fortunate opportunity to have a pastor who was a marvelous preacher. He was at our church for 15 years or so, and I can’t tell you how many times he preached on the same text; it was a different sermon each time, but the same text, and each time it was new and relevant. It was so because he relied on scripture and the Spirit, not himself.

    I think Barth had in mind a preacher who relied on God to reveal God-self, and not the preacher to do so for when the preacher takes it upon his/herself we end up with a fabricated God.

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