Bad sermons

Karl Barth (not to be confused with the good Karl Barth of the LCMS) was a neo-orthodox theologian, which isn’t as good as being an orthodox theologian, but it was arguably better than being a liberal.  Which he was when he first got out of seminary, to the point that he was called in his Swiss parish “the red pastor of Safenwil.”  Barth recalled the bad sermons that he used to preach.  Fred Sanders posts about the time he preached on the text of the Titanic:

Looking back on these early days, Barth later remarked with some regret, “During my time as a pastor… I often succumbed to the danger of attempting to get alongside the congregation in the wrong way. Thus in 1912, when the sinking of the Titanic shook the whole world, I felt that I had to make this disaster my main theme the following Sunday, which led to a monstrous sermon on the same scale.” (from the definitive Barth biogarphy by Eberhard Busch, p. 63) Yes, Barth took as his sermon text the current event of a disaster, rather than an actual portion of Scripture. He tacked on a bit of Psalm 103 (“as for man, his days are like grass”) at the beginning, but this sermon was clearly about the boat, and Barth was not leading his congregation into the word of God, but into the world of current events. “Do not stop short at my words, then, but consider for yourselves what God wished to say to us through this.” Yes, apparently God was speaking in this disaster, and Barth thought his job as a preacher was to interpret the “word of God” in the Titanic disaster, rather than the word of God in Holy Scripture. “Later, I was sorry for everything that my congregation had to put up with.” (Busch, p. 64)

What does the young, liberal-trained Karl Barth have to say about this message from God in the sinking of the Titanic? First, he (Barth, not God, presumably) is astonished by the scope of the ship, calling it “a miracle of the modern human mind, which utterly surpasses even the most fantastical images any of us could conjure up…” Were its makers sinning in constructing such an astonishing thing? No, says Barth: “The simple-minded will draw the conclusion that it is a sin to build ships this big and to journey across the sea in them. Quite the reverse, I am saying. It is entirely God’s will that the world’s technology and machinery attain to higher degrees of perfection. For technology is nothing other than mastery over nature, it is labour, and the divine spirit in humanity ought to expand in this labour and to prosper.”

Nevertheless, there is something wrong with the Titanic; not its status as an engineering feat per se, but the ostentatiousness of it: the fact that it was a floating shopping mall with swimming pools and a well-stocked fishing pond, fine cuisine and every luxury. “There is a way of using technology,” Barth warns, “that cannot be called labour any more, but playful arrogance. It is arrogance to install theatres and fish-pools on a vessel exposed to these sort of risks…” Building amazing boats is one thing, but the Titanic was just goofy: “God will not be mocked. He certainly intends us to work and to achieve something in the world. But he does not intend us to act as though we were done with working, and could now go fooling around.” Such lack of seriousness calls forth the judgment of God, and the sinking of the Titanic is apparently to be understood as God’s judgment.

As a result, the executives of the company behind the Titanic now have “1500 dead people on their consciences.” But the responsibility extends further, to the whole economic system that the Titanic represents: “But ultimately not even this shipping company bears all the guilt for this disaster, but first and foremost he system of acquisition by which thousands of companies like this one are getting rich today, not only through shipping but across the whole spectrum of human labour.”

Keep reading at Karl Barth Sinks With The Titanic.

We often praise good sermons at this blog.  I link to the ones I hear on Sunday mornings.  In the past, I have invited you to tell about what you have learned in your pastor’s preaching. We honor the pastoral office.  Sometimes, though, as I think most pastors will themselves admit, a sermon can go terribly wrong.  And in my travels and spiritual pilgrimage, I have heard some sermons wildly off the mark like this one, theologically empty or confused, offering pop psychology or pop politics instead of either the law or the gospel, blathering on and on without so much as mentioning Jesus Christ.

So tell about BAD sermons you have heard (or, perhaps, like Barth, delivered).

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • RobC

    I used to attend an Assemblies of God church. Almost every sermon was bad and as I recall looking back now, I can count on one hand the number of sermons that actually proclaimed the Gospel and not how to be a better you. When I sat down with the pastor to leave the Church I told him that me and my family were “drowning” in his “dare to be a Daniel” type sermons. So for me, any sermon that doesn’t proclaim the Good News is bad.

  • Sharon Philp

    I have heard a lot of lousy preaching lately. Part of that is when we go to church–we listen to church (LCMS) on the radio on our way to church (also LCMS). One Sunday the pastor on the radio preached practically the same sermon as our pastor. The radio guy was my friend’s pastor, and his sermon brought her to tears. Not because he convicted anyone with the Law, but because he treated a sensitive subject with insensitivity. Our pastor dealt with the same subject, but properly divided Law and Gospel. I wished afterwards my friend had heard our pastor instead of hers.
    Also, I hate hearing funeral sermons that say something like this: So-and-so is dead. You will never get to do thus-and-such with him/her anymore. The family is often in such throes of emotion because there is rarely any comfort in the resurrection proclaimed.
    One of the worst sermons I heard was an ordination sermon that dealt with a story about a ten-cow wife. It is too long to recall, but let’s just say it was bad.

  • TE Schroeder

    One common complaint about sermons is how long they are. Of course, this is a relative judgment. People can feel that any sermon is too long when they are dealing with achy bones sitting on a hard pew, or they are parents wrestling with an unruly child, or it is someone who is impatient to get out of church and get to the ball game. In my opinion, I don’t care how long a sermon is; I care how long it seems. That seems to be a good rule of thumb from either side of the pulpit.

    But then, if Law and Gospel are not proclaimed, it was not worth anyone’s time at all. If sin and Jesus are absent, some might still judge that it was a fine sermon (it kept my attention, it was entertaining, etc…). But we cannot call it a Christian sermon.

  • Julian

    I, too was raised in an AoG church, and my mother still goes there. I visit when I’m home. I was present one day when the pastor launched into a tirade about how Obama is a Muslim. I was not impressed.

  • Tom Hering

    Carl Vehse pastors an AoG church?!?

  • Rod

    I liked Barth’s sermon ‘on the sinking of the titanic’ :P … How could one get past the thunder in the statement that it was a ‘crime of capitalism’! an all that. I am, however glad that Barth ended up being someone who moved away from Christian socialism and thus has become someone very difficult to pigeon hole.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    I once attended a service in an ELCA church where the pastor (a woman) delivered, to my amazement, almost word-for-word the kind of sermon the character Rev. Judith Hardanger-Hansen, in my novel “Wolf Time,” would have given, even to the point of actually saying, and I quote, “Faith is more important than facts.” My reaction to this sermon caused a breach with a relative which was a long time healing, if it’s healed at all yet.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    I don’t hear bad sermons anymore. I’m privileged to be in the ranks of those who deliver them.

  • LAJ

    A former Catholic used to say that the worst Lutheran sermon is better than the best Catholic sermon.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    LAJ, That’s true until the catholic giving the sermon is a former Lutheran like Neuhaus.

  • Hanni

    Lars @7 …what did she mean?

  • Mockingbird

    I wonder to what extent we are not training pastors well in this area.

    One book I’ve been recommending to other pastors lately is “Why Johnny Can’t Preach”, by T. David Gordon. His premise is that a big part of the problem is that theology students and pastors predominantly read theology books, which communicate information differently than a story or a novel. He encourages men who wish to become pastors to major in liberal arts rather than theology, so that their communication is influenced by good writers. This isn’t to say the theology is not important, but while you will learn good theology reading Pieper, you won’t learn how to communicate it well.

  • http://www.redeemedrambling.blogspot.com Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist

    So Barth was a typical evangelical pastor?

  • Dr Luther in the 21st Century

    I am pretty much with Bror, not completely though as I serve with another pastor and get to hear him preach. But I get to deliver my share of bad sermons. It is one of the reason I continue to strive to perfect my skill. Personally, I find it very helpful to read and listen to good sermons.

    @Lars, Did you ask for credit for the sermon? ;) I heard a similar story in seminary. My homiletics professor had written an entry for Concordia Pulpit and then was out visiting family when He heard the pastor read the sermon he had written for the magazine right down to the personal story.

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    Wait… there are TWO Karl Barths!?!?!?

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    BTW, you want a bad sermon? Try this on for size: http://vimeo.com/20791878

    This guy was the straw that broke the camel’s back when it came to me leaving the Nazarene church. He sounds way too much like a Word of Faith charismatic and I ended up writing a miniature thesis examining things he’s said.

  • Bob

    Julian, your mom’s pastor must be a regular on here.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com bike bubba

    My favorite example of a bad sermon was when my then-pastor decided to recycle a sermon he’d given earlier that day to another church, and was designed to be a sort of pale imitation of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” in rebuke to the alleged spiritual laxity of that church. So whatever the wisdom of giving it to the other church, where he really didn’t know a soul but the fellow pastor who invited him, he then decided to recycle it for the faithful few who were there on a Sunday night. In other words, those who arguably were not spiritually lax.

    I generally object to the stereotype of evangelical/fundamental preaching as being “try harder”, but this was one where it was definitely the case. And thus it was the last sermon I heard by this guy, thankfully.

  • tODD

    The worst sermon I ever heard about (though didn’t actually hear) was in an article about Easter in the Portland Oregonian, in which some mainline pastor — possibly an ELCA one — tried to argue that Easter had something to do with nuclear disarmament.

    I won’t talk about my current pastor, but I do recall a lot of series sermons from the LCMs church I was confirmed in, many of which were pop psychology or relationship counseling in sermon form. As a young teen, I probably found it pretty easy not to pay attention to the sermons, anyhow, but I definitely knew at that age that there was little reason to listen to a sermon directed specifically at husbands and/or wives.

  • C-Christian Soldier

    wonder if the sermons delivered by the Black Regiment—Mulenberg (Lutheran) being one of the Black Regiment-would be considered BAD today–Oh wait- yes they would be considered bad–
    Glad the Pastors then had the vision to promoted the vision for FREEDOM -from the royals and tyranny~!
    C-CS

  • tODD

    Hooray for politics in the pulpit and pastors who confuse Christian freedom with political movements! Yay! We need more people who claim to be Lutheran (but might also be an ordained Anglican, but that was only for political convenience) yet talk less about Jesus and more about how our government ought to be structured! Yay for people who are (nominally) Lutheran!

  • http://geochristian.wordpress.com/ Kevin N

    One of the most influential sermons in my life was a bad sermon.

    I had recently gotten “saved” through an Evangelical campus ministry and was back at the ELCA (actually ALC at that time) church I grew up in. The pastor preached on the calling of the disciples. He compared the passage in John 1 to that of Matthew 4, and stated that the two contradicted each other and we don’t know which one is correct. I went home and wept afterward; how could the Word of God contradict itself?

    As I wept, I prayed and read the passages several times. It became clear to me that these were separate occasions. The disciples had been introduced to Jesus through the ministry of John the Baptist (John 1) but it doesn’t say they started following him full-time right away. Some time later, Jesus came up to them while they were fishing (Matt 4) and said, “Come follow me,” and they did.

    My grief was turned to joy. But was I just forcing something into the text? That night I was back at college, and went to the evening service of the fundamentalist Baptist church I was attending. The pastor gave a message on… the calling of the disciples. His analysis was the same as mine: two separate callings. I looked at the timing of the two messages as an act of God’s sovereign timing (the Baptist church, obviously, wasn’t using a lectionary).

    God can use really bad sermons to accomplish his work (not that I’m endorsing bad sermons). This sermon was used to greatly strengthen my confidence in God’s Word.

    I’ve written a longer version of this “bad sermon” story on my blog:
    http://geochristian.wordpress.com/2009/09/05/dealing-with-an-apparent-bible-contradiction/

    (I, too, have preached some bad sermons. Fortunately, I’ve only preached about a dozen times in my life.)

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  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    As I recall, her point was that it didn’t matter if things like the virgin birth or the resurrection actually happened, but only that we believed in them.

  • Marc

    The last sermon I heard when I was a member of the ELCA, which caused me to exit, was Easter Sunday in the mid 90′s. The sermon revolved around a dying church. Leadership had told the synod they were closing. Then a young man named, Steve, joined the ailing church. Steve was attractive and a natural leader. He started a softball team. He joined the choir and the choir grew. The church was turning around! Then Steve got sick. Steve had AIDS. Everyone rejected him. His family turned on him. But the church said, “He’s our Steve, we will take care of him.” And they cared for him until he died. But the small previously dying church was reborn. The end. So I guess the sermon was about a death and resurrection of sorts. Too bad the pastor missed preaching on the One and only who has died and was resurrected.

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