When the Sermon Fizzles Instead of Sizzles

The sermon fizzles instead of sizzles. The text seems to become opaque rather than clear. The illustrations fall flat while the application somehow fails to strike the heart, the mind, or the hands. The pastor seems distracted and discouraged while the congregation seems uninterested and unmoved.

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I expect we have all sat through a few sermons that, if not quite as bad as all that, were still strangely weak. I am certain we have all experienced sermons that seemed feeble and powerless, that ostensibly wielded the Word of God but did so with about as much strength as a plastic sword. I am sure we have all endured some sermons that struck us with all the power of a gentle gust of wind.

And when the sermon falls flat, I suppose we all tend to place the blame squarely on the shoulders of the preacher. Maybe he lacks skill or education or maybe he failed to give his sermon adequate time or preparation. Maybe he failed to pray earnestly in his study or failed to structure his week properly. If he’s the one who preached feebly, the fault must be his, right?

But who’s to say that, in the mind of God, the power of the preaching is entirely in the hands of the preacher? Who’s to say that the pastor’s task is to prepare the sermon while the congregation’s task is merely to prepare their own hearts to hear it? What if preaching is powerless not because of the pastor’s lack of preparation but because of the church’s lack of prayer? What if poor preaching is not the consequence of any failure on the pastor’s part but on the congregation’s?

Certainly every preacher should spend a good bit of his preparation time on his knees. Anyone who has preached will attest that God responds to those prayers in which we confess our sin, profess that we are overwhelmed before the text, and plead for divine clarity and ability. None of us is adequate for the task of preaching the Word. None of us, whether through clever words or rare skill or sheer determination, can generate the unction and anointing of the Spirit that we long to experience in the pulpit. None of us can force the Spirit to so “possess” and overtake us that he divinely empowers our words as we preach. That can only be called down, pleaded down, prayed down.

That being the case, why wouldn’t the congregation make it their responsibility to pray for the sermon—to pray for it to be accurate, to be effective, to be powerful? Why wouldn’t the church make it their task to plead with God to bless the preacher in his study, in his writing, in his preparation, and in his delivery? Why wouldn’t the church make it their duty to pray not only that their ears would hear, their minds understand, and their hearts receive, but that the preacher would be empowered by the Spirit in such a way that the listeners can’t help but hear, can’t help but understand, and can’t help but receive?

And so, on behalf of all the pastors who long to serve their church Sunday by Sunday, I call on all of us to plead with God for power in the pulpit. I call on all of us to make it our responsibility to pray for the preacher and the preaching. I call on all of us to consider that weak and powerless preaching may have as much to do—or even more to do—with the congregation’s lack of prayer than the pastor’s lack of preparation. I call on all of us to get involved in the preaching of the Word through our earnest prayers to God.