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How to Learn from Our Weekly Sermon Failures

3 ways to improve as a preacher.
How to Learn from Our Weekly Sermon Failures
Image: Martin Magnemyr / Unsplash

I grew up a pastor's kid in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church. So I had a front-row seat to a traditional black church until I was a teenager. Then my father suffered a stroke and was forced into early retirement. My parents had us in a private school that was connected to a large Assembly of God church that was predominantly white. Then in college, I went to a multi-cultural non-denominational church. Post-college, I worked for a church consulting group working with churches from all kinds of denominations in the country, and I truly fell in love with the "big c" Church. When I think about what God is doing across the world, there's nobody I respect more than preachers.

Today, I get the opportunity to serve on the teaching team at five megachurches. Three are in Texas, one is in the Chicagoland area, and the other is in Minnesota. Here's how it works: Each church will map out their series for the coming months, and I'll jump in on whatever series they're doing on the weekend I'm there. So essentially, I'm preaching a new message every single week because the content is primarily steered by that church.

What that means is that every single week I get an opportunity to … fail. Most people who hear me would never know that I struggle with what I like to call PPD—Post Preaching Depression. The two hours after I've finished preaching are the worst. In my mind, while I was preaching, there was an evil perfectionist version of myself sitting in the back shaking his head the whole time I was talking. And once I get off the stage, he meets me in the back, and we fight. He usually says stuff like:

Did you really say "in the Jewish culture"? You're not Jewish. How do you really know?

The Greek word for love? Glad you studied, buddy, but if you're going to study Greek, you should also learn how to pronounce the words. Pretty sure the only Greek word you can pronounce correctly is "agape."

Your story at the beginning was funny, but it had zero connection to the text. You made a connection, but it was a stretch.

Your last point sounded good primarily because it rhymed, but I'm not sure it's even biblical.

I swear I heard Judah Smith say that like four years ago.

It takes very little for me to feel like a failure after preaching. In fact, in the last five years, I can remember three times where I felt like I did a great job. That's mainly because the evil perfectionist version of me usually compares my 30-minute message to some other preacher's Instagram highlight. And at the same time, there are many weeks where I've just dropped the ball in a message because the content wasn't working in some way or another.

Now, I was supposed to write a piece about how preachers can find success in their weekly failures, but the truth is, I don't know. (Preachers rarely get to say those words out loud!) But I can tell you what three things I've learned from my weekly failures, and I think it can help preachers.

I Have Nothing to Prove and Everything to Improve.

For the longest time, I would get on stages with a chip on my shoulder like I had something to prove. There's so much that can go into proving yourself as a preacher from preparing your message to even preparing your outfit. I know preachers who spend more time at the mall for their message than they do in prayer and Scripture. Preachers often live with the pressure to sound good and look good while doing it.

What I must do is get to a secure place in my preaching where I'm not trying to prove to the audience that I'm better than I really am. I preached on heaven the other day, and I started the message off by saying:

There's a lot in Scripture about heaven that we're going to look at, but some of you are wondering what your loved ones are doing there now and if you'll see your dog, but all I can tell you is I've never been there and I don't know. But I do know I want you and I to be wherever Jesus is.

I would have never said that five years ago. I would have been too insecure. I would have fallen for the pressure to try and impress them with what I know about heaven. (Which is very little, considering I grew up on earthly Chicago.)

As a preacher, I have to remember that my job is to create a message that points people to Jesus, not to my Instagram profile. It takes a ton of pressure off me when I keep that front and center. It also allows me to look at messages objectively and simply look for ways to improve the content.

At one of the churches I speak at, I debrief every message after the first service to get constructive feedback from four to five staff members. The purpose of that meeting is to make sure the content is as good as it can be for the families that have entrusted us to teach them God's Word for the weekend. It's a room that allows me to improve the message without having to prove anything to anybody. If you don't have something similar, I highly recommend it.

The second thing my weekly failures have taught me is:

I Need to Make Sure I'm Writing Messages for People that Are Actually in the Room.

I used to write messages to impress the pastors on staff at my home church. Even when I would come as a guest at a church, I would be writing the message with the Senior Pastor in mind. I'd be thinking: I hope they're impressed with what I've put together.

One Wednesday night, I was scheduled to preach at my church, and I wrote a phenomenal dissertation on John 5 that I thought would blow our pastoral staff away when they heard it. I walked on stage, looked on the front row, and none of the pastoral staff was there. They were either on vacation or leading a small group somewhere else in the building. But I looked in the back of the room, and there was a friend from the gym. I had been inviting him to church for three years and he showed up for the first time. He literally sat behind the cameraman but stood in the aisle and waved at me when I walked on stage to make sure I knew he had come. I realized I had written a message for a group of people who weren’t in the room. I preached to my friend that night. That was the service I started writing messages for people that were in the room.

Here's what I know about most of the people in the rooms I speak in: They are often entirely unaware of the preacher I might be comparing myself to. And let me tell you who most definitely has never heard of the preacher I often compare myself to: people who aren't Christians.

I encourage you today to give your absolute best to whatever room you're in because the people in that room showed up there for a reason, and they don't know or care how good you think you are, but they do have a need only God can fill and a battle only God can win. You might be the only preacher they ever hear that can give them good news.

Flops Are Good for the Ego.

Compliments on a message are dangerous for the soul. I remember one of the first compliments I got as a teenager. They said, "Wow, you didn't use any notes! That's impressive." (I spoke for five minutes during an offering.) But that led me to carry this badge of preaching honor, telling others I don't use notes when I preach.

I took it really far once, where I memorized all the Scripture for a message. It took me hours to memorize a whole passage of the New Testament. It was impressive when I delivered it, but the mere memorization helped no one. It only helped me get a compliment. It would have been just as effective if I read it out of the Bible. I find it amazing that I would trade hours of memorization for one compliment. What is that? Ego.

Sometimes I use notes; sometimes I don't. I do whatever I need to help people, whether it makes me look good or not.

Here's what I've learned that is so good for my ego: looking bad. The media team putting up the wrong Scripture is so good for my ego. The plasma TV freezing that I preach on stage with is so good for my ego. The microphone battery dying is good for my ego. The audience not laughing at my joke or not applauding the point I thought was genius is so good for my ego.

Sometimes what we deem as a failure is actually a win for the church. They need to know humans have the mic and that the only perfect person they can lean on is Jesus.

If you're preaching this week and it doesn't go well, count it all joy, my preacher friend. If you were obedient to what God asked you to share, you won. Take notes on how you can improve the next time, be present in the room, and let your ego feel that flop to the fullest.

Editor’s Note: Want to learn more about how to learn from our failures? Be sure to check out Ryan’s new book Chasing Failure: How Falling Short Sets You Up for Success (Thomas Nelson, 2021)!

Ryan Leak is the son of a preacher that grew up in the church with a marketplace passion. Ryan is an author, speaker, executive coach, pastor, and podcaster.

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