Processing Pulpit Gaffe’sSeptember 16, 2008
A reader of Unashamed Workman recently posed this question: “When preaching spontaneously and you make a remark that is ill-advised, unbalanced. Or you phrase something badly that may be misunderstood. How does the preacher respond to the weight of his own errors and follies after preaching?”
I would suggest he respond in seven ways at least…
1) He should see his failings and foibles as evidence of sin’s continuing presence and view it as an opportunity to develop humility. JI Packer speaks of “growing downward” in humility and I have no doubt that preaching is one of God’s chief means to bring pastors low. However, low and contrite is better than high and haughty. So lie low. “Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will lift you up in due time.” (James 4:10)
2) He should rest upon the grace of God and cling to the cross for his sins in preaching. While the gospel is ‘good news’ for sinners generally, it is equally ‘good news’ for sinning preachers particularly! True, it is hardly the tip of the iceberg in terms of Jesus Calvary-achievements, but one of the things Jesus died for was bad sermons (and bad lines within sermons). ‘Sins of speech’ are covered too!
3) He should pray. Its amazing the difference simply bringing our cares to the Lord can make! Rather than bemoaning our failings to our wife in the car, why not bring it to the Lord first? Occasionally I return to the vestry alone for a few minutes following the preaching and handshaking, just for this very purpose.
4) He should consider how frequently such ‘spontaneous’ and ‘ill-advised’ comments recur in his preaching. If he sees a pattern of carelessness or sin, he should seek to address it. When I say a pattern of sin, I’m referring especially to pastors who frequently aim to shock with their words. These preachers like to be found on the ‘contemporary edge’ – a fine line between what is acceptable and what is not. Frankly, a lot of this tightrope walking quickly slips into patently sinful speech. Such sordid speech needs to be confronted and called-out like any sin (especially if it has become typical in our preaching).
On the other hand, some misdemeanors occur simply because of carelessness: a combination of a lack of preparation or laziness. For example, some preachers tend to prepare everything thoroughly except the conclusion. It may well be that it is within this ‘extemporaneous finale’ that the pastor tends to ‘say what he didn’t mean to.’ Yet once the pastor identifies the source of the problem, the solution is self-evident. Why not write out the conclusion in full?
5) He should query his motive. The preacher should honestly ask himself this question: Does the ‘weightiness’ of my after-sermon worry stem from a genuine concern over the congregations spiritual health (in light of my teaching/comments) or a fear over my precious reputation? Increasingly I am coming to realize that most of my feelings of failure after preaching are actually linked to a concern over what people will have made of me; not how harmful my misguided teaching might be for them.
6) He should – if the teaching has blatantly erroneous or a remark has been grossly unhelpful – later retract the comment publicly. By very definition, this would hopefully be an exceptional and extreme case. In such a situation, it would be better to protect the congregation from error than protect our pride. An apology can also remind the congregation of our own fallibility. Moreover, Scripture reveals that those who teach will be judged by God more strictly (James 3:1); it would be better then to remove some of the grounds of that judgment by correcting our errors as we go!
But I would also say, don’t be doing this every week. For one thing, the flock may lose any kind of confidence in the ability of their undershepherd to feed them solid food. Moreover, if the sermon has merely lacked some ‘balance’ on a doctrinal point, I would tend to think that consistently preaching the ‘full council of God’ would eventually redress the balance in any case.
7) He should normally move on by Monday morning. Its often said to be a discouraging thing that however well we preach on a Sunday, we have to create another ‘great sermon’ for only seven days hence. However the same is true following a sermon we would put in the ‘bad’ camp: seven days later we get a chance to put it right. Fix what we can. Improve what we must. Work even harder next time to handle the word of God in an ‘unashamed’ fashion.